Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Loading... Loading... Loading...

A ways back, I posted in this thread on about front-loaded games, games that require a lot of planning to get going. I'll outline my points there in a moment, but what I want to talk about today is what makes a game front-loaded, what is the value of front-loaded vs. non front-loaded (the Abigail suggests the term: unloaded) games, and how to predict the front-loadedness or not during the design process.

What do I mean by front-loaded games, exactly? A front-loaded game is any game where preparation is key and difficult to do without. Length character creation processes, numerous characteristics that are derived from other characteristics (making it more difficult to improvise a non-player character on the spot), and complex, specialized rules for some of the many things one might encounter in the environment (traps, for example) all contribute to front-loading. White Wolf's Exalted is a good example of a front-loaded game, because although it uses a familiar, flexible dice-pool system, the game's magic (charms) comes in long lists of individual magic powers, each of which has different prerequisites and its own rules. It's difficult to improvise a non-player character because just tossing a handful of charms her way can lead to weird situations later, such as "what was I thinking, having her use Crimson Blossom of Death but not Heaven Fire Strike? That doesn't make any sense!" Dungeons and Dragons, where every spell is a uniquely rule-breaking phenomenon, creating a powerful enemy or customizing a standard foe can be an extremely lengthy process, and there are special rules for traps, poisons, starving, falling, and drowning, is another good example. I'm not even going to touch Shadowrun.

Now, let me be clear: front-loading a game isn't intrinsically bad. There is a certain ease to running a front-loaded game. All the work is done. Everything you created is laid out in front of you in your notes, and you can focus on having fun with your friends. Also, with a certain degree of familiarity front-loading can become less of a factor. If you know Exalted well enough, for example, it matters less that NPC-generation is so front-loaded, because you know the charm trees backwards, forwards, upside, and down.

There are, however, two serious problems with front-loaded games, and they both center around the unexpected. First of all, it can be incredibly frustrating when players make unexpected choices in a front loaded game because it often makes all that preparation seem like a waste of time - "what do you mean, you jimmy the elevator with a toothpick? A toothpick? You mean I wrote all that awesome stuff on floors six through eleven for no good reason?!" Secondly, unexpected choices can leave you in a lurch, because if the players do something you haven't accounted for, it's likely that you haven't statted it out, either. Both of these sentiments - defensiveness of all the hard work you did and the relative difficulty of improvising - can contribute to rigid plots, and rigid plots lead to railroading, and railroading leads to the dark side.

Finally, those burning zeppelin experiences I love so much tend to come from the unexpected. Or rather, they require a certain flexibility. If you can run with whatever is setting your players on fire right the hell now, you are more likely to create those experiences, and they are what I'm in this whole roleplaying thing for in the first place. Although I'm not about to stop playing my favorite front-loaded games, that means that I have an interest in the phenomenon of unloaded games.

The single most unloaded game I have encountered so far is probably (you guessed it) Houses of the Blooded. What makes Houses of the Blooded so light on its feet? Two things: most of the things players will encounter over the course of play will be defined by the players themselves, not by a game master. If the players are interested in something, they will provide it ("she's a famed swordswoman" says the player who wants to fight a climactic duel at the end of the session "and there are rumors that she is involved in a demon-worshipping cult" responds the player who wants a little horror-investigation), the GM need only keep his or her eyes and ears open. Secondly, each character him or herself consists of very little, and what he or she consists of is directly tied to the way the character is narrated. Your average character is made of five Virtues (ranked numerically) and two or so Aspects, which are short phrases that describe some facet of the character's narrative identity.

Similarly, most of the things in the character's environment can be handled with Aspects. Rooms have Aspects, magical curses have Aspects, and horrible monsters have Aspects. Social situations, foods, and drugs have Aspects. And deciding what Aspects something has is as simple as narrating it. Given what the players have told me about the character above, for example, if she was suddenly and unexpectedly thrust front and center, I can easily give her the "Famed Swordswoman" and "Dark Rumors" Aspects, which she and others could use for and against her in various ways. My work here is done.

Contrast this with, say Exalted (to use a game I also like, so it's clear I'm not just fanboying all over Houses of the Blooded). In Exalted, the traditional balance of power between GM and player is largely maintained. A good GM will listen to her players, but basically writes the story, to which the players react. This isn't bad, but it does mean there is a story that the players can depart from. If they do, I'm in a lot more trouble, because an Exalted character consists of nine Attributes and twenty-five Abilities, each rated from zero to five, a huge variety of magical Charms, each of which requires minimums in various Attributes and Abilities, and several other scores (Permanent Essence, Virtues, Backgrounds) some of which are calculated based on some of the above (Essence points, Willpower). If you've ever run Dungeons and Dragons and seen a "stat block," you know that in that game I'm in even more trouble.

So what have I learned from this comparison? To create an unloaded game, first keep the numbers to a minimum and try to link the really important traits to narration, so that it's easy to decide what someone who suddenly needs stats can do based on what you've already figured out she is. Second, put power in the hands of the players so they can make shit up, leaving you to decide what to do with it, which isn't any easier, but (at least for me) takes less time.

The Abigail suggests that I bring this post out of the concrete and into the ephemeral by talking about the difference between front-loaded and unloaded games in storytelling as well as mechanics, and I'm going to give it my best shot.

As an example, the Abigail lists two of our long running games: one Mage: the Ascension game called Pillars of Creation and another as-yet-untitled Exalted game usually referred to by the name of it's heroine, Nightingale (i.e. "Mark, when are we going to get back to the Nightingale game?").

The Nightingale game is a good example of front-loaded game running. From the very beginning, I had a clear idea of where I was going. I stayed light on my feet, responding to the Abigail's interests (and fixations - like when she decided that she was going to redeem this one villain, Idle Hands of Perdition, no matter how obnoxious he was; I kid because I love), but I knew that Nightingale was eventually going to discover that her previous incarnation had fallen in love with one of his creations and sacrificed her because he had lacked the forethought and bravery to ensure her safety, and that that creation, in her bitterness, was behind many of the world's troubles. The Abigail describes the experience as being one of slow unfolding. She felt like there was a vast, fascinating world moving beneath the surface, just beyond what she could see, and she looked forward to discovering more every time we played.

On the other hand, Pillars of Creation was completely unloaded (and perhaps unhinged). In fact, it began as a total gimmick game. "Hey, the Abigail," I said to one day as we relaxed in Chautauqua one summer, "you have a thing for people turning into other creatures and back again - make me a character who has been trapped in animal form for a long time!"

What the Abigail produced was the story of Emma, a wizard in Victorian England (the Abigail also has a thing for victoriana) who had, through her own arrogance, gotten herself turned into a cat, forgot who she really was (a rival trapped her in an antimagic cat-box), and ended up in America. On a lark, I set the game in an Upstate New York vacation community (Chautauqua with the serial number filed off), and started running with a canon Mage villain (because I couldn't be bothered to invent my own) trying to kill her owner, an adorably normal magic destiny child.

About two years later, Pillars of Creation is one of our favorite games, an epic of love, friendship, betrayal, hope, and desperation. Of course, by now I do have huge plans moving beneath the surface, but at the beginning, I had no idea where I was going. In fact, at the beginning, I would never have predicted that this game would still be running two years later. I'd expected it to run out of steam shortly after Emma regained her human shape.

For the Abigail, Pillars of Creation has been empowering and fun. She knew there was a setting out there and that I was thinking about things she didn't know, but there was more of a sense that anything was possible. The game was lighter, and everything could turn on a dime. "Gee, it would be fun it..." the Abigail would say, and it would happen later that week. In the Nightingale game, it would happen, but more slowly, less adroitly, and sometimes, less enjoyably.

The biggest difference, however, was probably for me. Because I was just as mystified about what came next in Pillars of Creation as the Abigail, I got to be surprised, too. It was almost as though I was somehow Storytelling the game for both of us. Unfortunately, that feeling gradually faded, as the unloaded experience of the first few sessions was eventually replaced. Plots grew in the background, and eventually I did know what was coming next. I had to. I'd written it, and if I hadn't, the game would have fallen apart.

* * *

That's about as far as I can go right now, and this post is approaching epic length. However, I have a few last points.

Firstly, I've yet to experiment with running an "unloaded" game, either Houses of the Blooded, some other low-numbers, high-narrative, power-to-the-players sort of game in the long term. I know that what I read in the book is exciting, but I don't know how long it stays that way. Do those games stay unloaded, or does the buildup of plot eventually force them to become like any other game, potentially fun, but with baggage? I'll have to look into it myself, and when I do, I'll let you know.

Secondly, I don't have any particular questions. Just, as usual, I want input. Input me.

First of the Year

And, by the way...

Tomorrow being a day off, and the Abigail's sister's birthday party, I may or may not post. At this point, there's really no way of knowing for sure. Fair warning is fair play, though, so either you'll read me tomorrow or you won't.

Happy new year!

Burning In the New Year

It's the end of the year and time for the obligatory end of the year retrospective. Everyone's doing it.

2008 has been an eventful year for this zeppelin. I finished my first novel and started - in earnest - my second. I set a writing goal for myself and, so far, I've kept it more often than not. I got my first ever freelance writing contract - my first ever paid writing - and I delivered, on time, material that impressed my boss... and then I got a second contract. I started a blog (twice, even) - a successful blog with real live readers (in New Zealand! Crazy!) - and I haven't dropped it yet, and I won't, and in this blog I've posted about all sorts of things. I participated in National Novel Writing Month... and lost. But I tried, and that's a big thing.

What will the new year hold? Well, you never know for sure, but here are a few ideas that tickle me:

  • I will grow the Burning Zeppelin Experience. I want more readers, I want an active readership who comment and post links to things they like and to their own blogs. To achieve this, I will continue linking aggressively and pimping myself out on the blogs and podcasts that I consume. I will also finally get those business cards printed and start passing them out at local sci-fi/fantasy/rpg conventions.
  • I will also transform the Burning Zeppelin Experience. In the coming year, I want to transfer the Burning Zeppelin Experience from a blogger blog (cool, flexible, and free, but limited and less professional) to a Wordpress-powered blog, with my own domain name, on my hosted web space.
  • I will do even better with my writing goals: finish my second novel, finish my third (NaNoWriMo) novel, edit my first novel, and write (and finish!) more short stories. Also, I will finish at least a first draft of one of my several roleplaying games (not that that's ever going to get published, but a dude can dream).
  • I will aggressively pursue publication. I will get my third freelance contract (and my fourth, and my fifth, and my sixth...), I will send short stories to magazines, and when A Knight of the Land is finished, I will send it to agents.

Are these New Year's resolutions? Nope. Resolutions are lame. They never happen. This? This is an action plan, baby.

Catch you in 2009.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Tales of the Flat Earth

Just the other day, I finished Tales From the Flat Earth: the Lords of Darkness, by Tanith Lee, a prolific British author of Sword and Sorcery, some of it for children and young adults, and much of it quite adult. Tales from the Flat Earth is a combination of three novels: Night's Master, Death's Master, and Delusion's Master, all originally published between 1981 and 1984 (the same time I was published - that is, born). Anyway, the short of it is that I really enjoyed it, and I recommend it.

Tales From the Flat Earth was reminiscent of Tolkien's Silmarillion in that it was less of a consistent narrative and more of a cycle of tales, a bible if you will, telling a story that spans many mortal lifetimes. Night's Master is Azharn, the demon king, who loves humanity because he can torture it; Death's Master is Ulume, the personification of death, who is utterly dispassionate, until a proud queen and her demonic "son" (read the book and you'll understand the scare quotes) nearly put him out of a job; and Delusion's Master is Chuz, the cunning and fickle personification of insanity. The conflicts of these forces against humanity and each-other shape the destiny of humanity even has humanity struggles to find it's own fate.

In my mind, Tales From the Flat Earth has two main points to recommend it:

Firstly, Tanith Lee is a very good writer. As a wordsmith, she is superb. Every word, every phrase, serves to create a wide variety of moods, whatever mood she needs for the story she is writing. The stories in Tales From the Flat Earth are gritty, opulent, sexy, epic, and personal, one at a time and all at the same time. From having read some of her other work (the Claidi Journals, her Young Adult series - here's a link to Book One), I can tell you that creating strongly evocative moods through a highly flexible style seems to be Lee's strength in general.

Secondly, the very idea of a themed anthology of mythological tales tickles me. It's an approach to fantasy that I've never taken in earnest, though I've occasionally played with it - my hard drive is littered with unfinished cosmogonies and theogenises. Perhaps I'll have to try my hand at it some time soon.

If Tales From the Flat Earth has a weakness at all, it's this: the style might not appeal to everyone. Although the narrator does delve into the thoughts of her characters, she is more distant than one expects from a modern novel. As I wrote earlier, Tales From the Flat Earth more closely resembles a cycle of myths than a novel, and if that doesn't interest you, you'll probably find the book frustrating.

But if I were you, I'd give it a shot. All the cool kids are doing it.

* * *

One other note: Tanith Lee has something against the color blue. Blue poison, evil blue dead chicks... it never ends. So I suppose if you are a hardcore, militant blue fan, that might be a downer.

Beneath His Sandled Foot

This is clever. And, two pages long.

Also, Wizard's First Rule is dumb. I read about five books into the series, but let's call a spade a spade: it's pretty bad. I could go into why, exactly, but one dimensional characters, poorly realized villains, and strains of Mary Sewage come to mind. Not that anything's wrong with reading dumb books from time to time. After all, I'm about to talk about Conan the Barbarian.

My Costa Rica beach reading was The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, a collection of the first Conan short stories and novellas by Robert E. Howard. For me, beach reading isn't something I read on the beach because I'm too ashamed to admit that I want to read it all the time - beach reading is just whatever I was going to read next, only on the beach.

So, to prove it, I'm going to come clean. Like our next president, I have a guilty affection for the Conan franchise. Conan the Manly Fantasy Profession (or, occasionally, Conan and the Dire Situation or Conan and the Secondary Character) novels formed a great part of my childhood chewing gum reading. However, I hadn't read the original stories and novellas, and it was a fun and eye-opening experience. What was really interesting, however, was what I read in the afterword.

Howard is a fascinating and troubled (and troubling) figure. By modern standards, he was shockingly racist, and if you read the original Conan stories it really shows. Howard was plagued by serious depression his whole life, and was known to say that he only held off killing himself to help care for his ailing mother, who was dying of tuberculosis. Howard never married, though he was close friends with many of his fellow pulp writers, including such luminaries as H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. When his mother entered her final illness and Howard was told that she would never regain consciousness, he shot himself and died shortly thereafter.

At first glance, it is obvious what Howard was trying to do with Conan. Conan is huge, far larger than life, a man of fantastic strength and an unmitigated lust for life. He fights like a demon and screws like a wild animal. Men fear him and women want him. Howard clearly wanted to write someone as unlike himself as possible, to vicariously experience a life free of the disease that eventually killed him.

Or did he?

If you look carefully at the original Conan stories - the ones written by Howard himself - especially some of the surviving drafts, Conan's secret face emerges.

Conan's home country of Cimmeria is described in an unpublished draft as "all of hills, heavily wooded and the trees are strangely dusky, so that even by day all the land looks dark and menacing... there is little mirth in that land, and men grow moody and strange." Howard said remarkably similar things about his birthplace in Dark Valley, Palo Pinto County, Texas in a letter to H.P. Lovecraft: "It was a long, narrow valley, lonesome and isolated... it was very sparesly settled and it's name... was highly descriptive. So high were the ridges, so thick and tall the oak trees that it was shadowy even in daytime..."

Similarly, in some unpublished drafts (and in a few published stories) Conan himself is described as a "sullen-eyed" man of "gigantic melancholies," which he attributes to his origins in Cimmeria. Sometimes, when he is alone - especially in unpublished stories - Conan expresses his own depression: "the borders of life shrivelled and the lines of existence closed in about him, numbing him." Howard, on the other hand, had his "black moods" - the depression that would eventually lead to his suicide.

At the same time, Conan is everything Howard wanted to be. Conan lived in a world where he could grab life by the throat. He was hugely physically powerful, unstoppable and irresistable. At the risk of showing disrespecting to Howard's memory, Conan even lived in a world where Howard's shockingly racist attitudes could be given free reign, because Howard wrote them into the setting as truth. Conan is an idealized Howard, living in a world Howard would have enjoyed, as a man designed to enjoy it.

However, it seems to me that Robert E. Howard failed at writing an idealized version of himself. Instead, he wrote a fantasy version of himself, no less plagued by depression than the real person, for all his physical strength, long list of lovers, and eventual ascension to the throne.

First of all, it goes to show that there is always heart and soul in fiction. No matter how trashy - lurid, bloody, racially... um... complicated - a work is, it is still and always a work of art. Perhaps, somewhere out there in the world of writing, there are hacks who put nothing of themselves into their work, but I doubt it. Howard was definitely a hack according to most definitions of the term. He didn't write great literature and he never claimed to. Howard wrote to keep the pot boiling, for magazines that were called 'pulps' because they didn't even bother to use quality paper in the printing. And yet, he clearly put his heart into his work and was greatly invested in it. Can you say the same? I know I can't, not always.

Secondly, some degree of identification with our heroes is impossible. When I write, I sometimes look at my finished product and wonder what is there that I can't see. Will biographers read A Knight of the Land or Rat and Starling (or whatever it ends up being called when it's published) and talk about how those stories reflect things about me that even I didn't know? Who knows? But the truth is, I kind of like to think that they will.

Now, to find some jeweled thrones of earth...

* * *

  • When else have you been surprised by how heartfelt a piece of fiction turned out to be?
  • Have you ever set out to write one thing and written another - more to the point, have you ever written yourself into a story without knowing it?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Black Hats Against White Hats, Me Versus You... Christmas!

Ok, I lied. Here is a makeup post for yesterday. It'll be a brief post, because I'm still ill, and thanks to a series of unusual events the Abigail and I - with Jon's help - are hosting a late Christmas for Abigail's family - three Jews preparing Christmas dinner for a total of six jews and three agnostics (one of whom may be a closet atheist - it depends who you ask).

Allow me to direct your attention to the web page of one Black Hat Matt, also known as Matthew McFarland. Matt is a freelance developer for White Wolf who has contributed in one way or another to most of the games they have produced. He's also a totally awesome guy with an absurdly adorable daughter (who eviscerated me at GenCon - long story). Finally, Matt was the dude who gave me my start in rpg writing (which is a weird phrase, since I'm really not much past my start in rpg writing).

Anyway, the website I'm directing you to is a great place with tips for running a variety of White Wolf's fine products and essays by Matt about being a good player and a good Storyteller, and how to transiting from being good to being great.

Matt doesn't have a Matt-the-writer blog, just a livejournal (I should get on him about that...), so you won't be seeing him on my blogroll. However, you should all go check out his website and bookmark it, and visit him often.

Tell him Mark sent you.

Excuses Excuses Excuses

Endless apologies about yesterday's lack of a post. I'm going to blame it entirely on my mysterious tropical disease (way cooler than admitting that it's just a cold), which is why instead of hammering out the post I've been mulling over all day after Shabbat with the Abigail's parents, I fell into a NyQuil-induced haze.

I should be all better by Monday. If I'm not, I'll let you know.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Burning In Paradise

I'm back in San Francisco again, which is nice. Jon (who is mentioned previously, in posts I'm too jet-lagged and ill to find. Ok, I lied) is visiting the Abigail and I for a month, which is all to the good.

Less to the good is that I am jet lagged and, as mentioned above, ill. That's right, I picked up a cold in paradise. Usually, when the Abigail gets sick, I just shrug it off, or don't catch it at all. This time, the son of a bitch has taken up residence in my chest and sinuses and shows no sign of being evicted any time soon.

Ugh. Just, ugh.

Anyway, I'm going to take it easy for the next few days and try to get my innards screwed in straight. Unless I'm deathly ill, you can expect a Burning Zeppelin post tomorrow, same bat-time, same bat-channel. Um, bat-blog. Burning Zeppelin blog. I'm really not very funny when I'm sick.

Monday, December 15, 2008

It's Cold Up Here - the Burning Zeppelin Flies South

Ok, everyone, time for a brief Burning Zeppelin Update.

I am headed to Costa Rica for vacation this year. The Abigail's huge extended family is holding a huge reunion in warmer climes, and I'm invited! We leave tomorrow night on a red-eye and don't return to San Francsico until Christmas day, which means that Christmas with the Abigail's grandma and Hanukkah with everyone else will be... complicated. More depressingly, this means that Burning Zeppelin posts will be rare, at best, until after Christmas. I'll have internet in Costa Rica, but not in my room, and said internet may well be costly (and I am poor).

More importantly, I've been feeling just a little burned out. Oh, don't worry - posting every weekday has been a huge trip, and I'm not about to stop. However, I think a break would be nice.

So, I am taking off starting after tomorrow's post and lasting until the day after Christmas. If the mood strikes me, I may post sporadically in the next week, but I might not. This is a vacation, after all. Good luck to you all. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and an otherwise joyous whatever the hell you decide to do while I'm in Costa Rica.


A Time-Traveller's Life

Nobody, but nobody, does time travel right.

This post is, in many ways, inspired by Heroes, one of the two television shows that I can be bothered to follow right now (the other is Lost). You see, one of my favorite characters on Heroes is Hiro Nakamura, the teleporting, time-bending, Star Trek-referencing geek-boy. Also, one of my least favorite characters is Hiro Nakamura (the other - from a writing-of-magical-powers perspective - is Peter Petrelli). Despite the fact that he's an awesome character in every other way, in my opinion, his powers have always annoyed me.

This isn't a Heroes blog, so I don't want to get into it. Suffice it to say that time travel is possibly the most problematic science fiction or fantasy trope ever. Almost nobody ever gets it right.

I say almost because there are three bright, glaring exceptions that prove the rule. The first is the book whose title was mangled at the top of the post - The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger - and two short stories by Robert Heinlein: By His Bootstraps and All You Zombies (both short stories are favorites of mine - the book I haven't read, yet). And, to be nit-picky, the the book is kind of disqualified; in many ways, it isn't a fantasy, but rather a serious psychological romance that uses time travel as a metaphor for the time traveler's issues.

What are the pitfalls that time travel can't seem to avoid?

The first problem with time travel is how it interacts with the question of free will. It is my opinion that human life is pretty much worthless (or, at least, uninteresting) without some kind of free will. I mean, sure, we're the product of our environment, we all have deep, messy subconsciouses full of weird shit, but ultimately I refuse to believe that I am not the author of my own destiny. I'm not a wind-up toy that was powered up by my childhood and let go for my adulthood, until I finally wind down. Sure, the idea is disturbing, but mostly it's boring. If I wouldn't even want to live it, why would I want to write a story about it (vice versa also applies).

How does time travel tend to do this? Many time travel stories seem to play with the idea that the future cannot be changed, that all your efforts to change the future actually lead you back to the future you saw. While compelling for some tragedies, it's ultimately a bit too much of a downer for me, in addition to cheapening the meaningfulness of human choice.

The second problem is one of consistency. Time travel and its attendant paradoxes are very complicated and require a lot of thought, and if you get them wrong, it's pretty glaring. Worse, the very concept of time travel is usually so alien that it requires a lot of suspension of disbelief already. Throw in inconsistent rules and you're doomed.

The value of time travel is that it is one of those pieces of magic or magical technology that everyone has wished they had at least once (for me, the other is teleportation - now you know why I love Hiro Nakamura so much). Seriously, haven't you ever been studying some historical epoch and thought to yourself "wouldn't it be awesome to go back and actually see it for myself?" or at the aftermath of an argument with a loved one and thought "damnit, if only I could go back and try that again." Who hasn't missed something you wanted to catch and wished you could bounce back in time so you could be there for it, even as you rushed to get there? Who hasn't wanted a night with a friend or lover to last forever? The endless, merciless march of time is one of the things about the world that sometimes really, really sucks. I think the desire to bend time, even just a little, is a pretty universal human wish, up there with flying and living forever.

Well, then, how can we do it right?

Well, one of the problems can be handled through simple careful writing. Take good notes, build a good setting, and follow your own rules, and time travel should work out ok. The latter problem, though, I'm not as sanguine about. The tendency of time travel to erode free will is a problem.

Your best bet, in my opinion, is to let your time-travelling heroes win once in a while. This is the saving grace of Heroes' Hiro - his time travel powers might be problematic and unexplained, but when push comes to shove, he saves the day in the end.

Now, if only he could get the girl...

* * *

  • Other than the above, are there any time travel greats that I'm missing? Because I'm always looking for recommendations.
  • When have you tried to write time travel and failed? When have you succeeded?
  • What historical epoch would you like to travel to. Me? I'd like to be a fly on the wall (an Aramaic-speaking fly) while the rabbis discuss how to canonize the disparate Jewish texts into a (more or less) coherent Torah and shape Judaism to survive the destruction of the temple and exile from Jerusalem. You?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Today's Burning Zepplin Zipread

When I saw this xkcd strip (distributed under a Creative Commons license - attribution, non-commercial - yay!) first I laughed, then I cried. Why did I laugh? Because he's right. I think we've all read that book. You know, that book. The one where everything and its cousin has some inane made-up term and you find yourself constantly flipping to the glossary in the back of the book for reference because you can't figure out what the hell is going on.

For that matter, I think we've all played that roleplaying game, too. The one where the authors saw fit to include a massive lexicon of made up slang terms in the back (I'm looking at you, Planescape, Shadowrun) (also, they're converting Planescape to the Mage: the Ascension rules set? Awesome! I'll have to investigate that later). I mean, do they expect us to actually memorize that list and use it in play?

In both of these negative archetypes, the problem is one of usage. The trouble is that nobody really cares. We don't want to have to flip back and forth between the text of the novel and a glossary in the back of the book. We don't want to memorize five pages of made up slang to play our characters. We want to read. We want to play. We want to get to the good stuff already.

It's also a problem of consistency and suspension of disbelief. You see, with most books, there is an assumption that the characters aren't really speaking English (or whatever). Why should they be? They're elves, or aliens, or superficially human creatures living in a world with radically different geology and physical laws. So then, the question becomes, why does the author translate so selectively? If you're going to leave a word that translates as "oh, crap!" in whatever weird language they speak in your fictional world, why not write the entire book in Sblurbish and provide a translation guide in the back? Where do you draw the line, and why?

Ok, maybe that last one doesn't bother anyone else. Me, it keeps up at night. Go figure.

Anyway, after I laughed, I cried. Why? Because you know what? I've written that book.

In A Knight of the Land I spent a lot of time and energy creating an ancient language, which I called Keashonite. I wanted to give the Knights of the Land an anachronistic feel, like they were not quite in sync with the world around them. They were an ancient order, following ancient rules, and still reeling from the aftereffects of an old war. So, I gave them an old language. The Knights named their swords and horses in this old language.

The two things that (I hope) set A Knight of the Land apart from those books are this: selectivity and consistency. I was very careful about where I use Keashonite in A Knight of the Land. Not everyone spoke it and even the Knights didn't spew it left and right. Instead, the Knights used Keashonite for things that didn't have proper words in their modern language, in communication with creatures that didn't speak more modern languages very well, and as the proper names of the occasioanal person, creature, and thing. Secondly, I applied Keashonite consistantly and wove it into the entire setting. Lots of nations and landmarks have Keashonite-sounding names (most of which I never bothered to go into), just to provide a feeling that these weird words are a part of the setting at large, not just me making shit up.

But sometimes, I'm afraid that at worst, I'm just perpetrating the same sort of narrative asshattery that I just finished mocking, only with a length justification. At best, I'm afraid that I'll be tarred with the same brush. The fantasy world is saturated with made up lingo, and whatever I do, I'll come across as stupid.

Or maybe I won't. There's only one way to find out: finish editing the damned thing and start sending it to agents.

And that's it for Friday. I'll see you all again on monday. Until then, iko kee'an meresh, friends.

* * *

  • Are there any particularly egregious made up word heavy novels and roleplaying games that I missed?
  • Have you ever written a story heavy with made up words? How did it go?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

When Someone Asks You if You're a God, You Say...


The Abigail keeps on telling me that I'm good at worldbuilding. I have, she says, a talent for creating compelling settings for my stories. After years of writing and listening to the Abigail praise me, I'm inclined to agree. So, I'm going to spend a little while talking about the fine art of setting creation.

Settings can be rough, at least in part because it's possible to pay too much attention to them. We've probably all read a book or a story where the author had a little too much to say about where the story was set and not enough to say about, for example, her characters or what happens to them. In a less extreme way, a good setting can make flat characters a little more obvious than they would be in a flatter setting. When the mountains have more character and a more interesting backstory than the hero, you know you have a problem.

At the same time (of course - when is it ever simple?) when your setting is flat, your whole story is flat. The setting is where your characters come from. Without a good setting, the same interesting traits that make them worth writing about render them out of place.

When I sit down to write a story set in a made-up world (and all stories - even the most rigorously researched historical fiction - are set in a made-up world, even if it's well researched but still imagined version of reality) I start by imagining the tensions that run the world. Imagine that the world is a huge engine powered by conflict. I want X, you want Y, and that makes the world go 'round.

While you're deciding this, keep in mind that every conflict has too sides. Making any one group the bad guy too often might send an unintended message. Besides, one-sided conflicts are boring. In the real world, you very rarely end up with characters who are all good or all bad. Lazy writing is alive and well in world building.

* * *

You know what... this isn't really doing it for me. I'm having a hard time articulating what I mean by a well-written setting without sounding either preachy, pompous, or generally inane. How about I stop telling and show? Here are a few of my personal favorites from the several worlds I have created:

A Knight of the Land: The Ten Nations

Ah... aKotL, how you haunt me. In case you're only just tuning in, A Knight of the Land is the novel I finished just before Burning Zeppelin Experience started up again in October after it's abortive beginning in May.

The setting of A Knight of the Land is an area called the Ten Nations. To the east is a sea, to the south and west are impassable wildernesses, and to the north it eventually gets too cold to bother with. The Ten Nations are... well, ten nations with varied cultures and modes of government. I put a lot of work into little details: how they dress, what they make their homes out of, their attitudes towards gender, sex, and tattoos, and so on. I paid attention to geography and economics, so that nations that are close to each other and trade with each other are more alike than nations that have nothing to do with each other.

The central tension of A Knight of the Land the balance between nature and humanity (the world was once a golden garden, but this was made more complicated in the distant past when an ecological catastrophe nearly wiped it out). Symbolizing this tension is the relationship between the various nations and the titular Knights, ecowarriors empowered by a piece of the earth goddess (who was shattered by the aforementioned catastrophe), and the various nations, who respect the Knights of the Land and their mission to varying degrees. Of course, I shake things up by introducing at least one nation that lives in perfect harmony with the land and still hates the Knights. It's also important to note that "doesn't respect the Knights" or even "doesn't live in perfect harmony with the land" is never used as a shorthand (longhand?) for "bad guy." Even when one of the ten nations ends up finding and using one of the terrible old weapons - in this case, a crown that can drag magma up from below the earth and destroy entire cities - they aren't "bad." They're just trying to survive, like everyone else.

The Scourge: The Terran Trade Hegemony

One of my rare science fiction settings - and this one is definitely a setting, because the story component is so weak I have no idea how to fix it - the Scourge's setting is about desperation. It's a pretty bleak world, where a silicon-based life form that lives by eating your planet's crust and spreads by inducing your planet to self destruct has infected many worlds, including Earth. We have Faster-Than-Light travel, but not communication, which has produced a bit of a rough and tumble, wild west frontier feel, with rickety space ships transporting mail and messages from place to place. People can carry the microbe (which can go dormant, like a virus, when there isn't enough food) leading to quarantines of infected planets, which then become places of incredible poverty and deprivation (even though your average human cannot carry a sufficient quantity of the microbe to infect a planet with any degree of likelihood, just like if I infect you with a single cell of the AIDS virus, you'd probably never get sick). It's possible to have the microbe removed from your body, but nearly impossible to find passage off an infected world - the microbe eats through the metallic hulls of space ships with frightening speed.

Once your world is infected, you're in big trouble. The Terran Trade Hegemony demands high taxes in return for "treatments" - subterranean bombs full of nanomachines that find and destroy the silicon-based microbe - and they'll blow your planet up before they'll let it burst like an infected cell and infect the worlds around it. Unfortunately, the microbe mutates quickly, and each generation is hardier than the last. Earth itself is barely hanging on, but it is also the center for studying the microbe. Scientists who opt to travel there never leave.

Of course, all of this is against a backdrop of a widely spread humanity which has evolved, both through natural mutation and intentional self-modification, into a wide variety of forms. A conspiracy within the Terran Trade Hegemony plans to use the Scourge to wipe out worlds they judge no longer "sufficiently" human to take part in the beautiful future they imagine for humanity. In a world where some humans have extra arms, photosynthesizing skin, no need to sleep, weirdly-configured brains and aberrant personalities... you might think they have a point.

Useless Nick: the Brotherhood

Another science fiction setting (wow, at this rate you guys are going to think I write a lot of science fiction - two out of three ain't bad, as they say), this universe is still recovering from an interplanetary war between Earth and its loyal colonies - then ruled by an aggressive and aggressively rational republic - and the political and religious exiles it created over several hundred years of asshattery. The central tension is the culture of forgetting, as people try to let the past be the past and forget the horrors of war and the former regime (horrors that many people and their families stood aside and let happen) perpetrated fade away.

Against this backdrop, a somewhat bumblign lieutenant is assigned to a team whose mission is recover the lost self-aware space ships that the winners built to defeat the losers. Because these "behemoths" are seen as reminders of the war, there are many who would rather let them drift forever in various states of decay. Only the fact that some members of the government and the military have compassion for (or a sense of debt to) the self-aware ships, and the fact that the old earth government still exists, in exile on a handful of worlds, and would love to get their hands on them keeps the team funded, but they're still always on the edge of giving up. This is an aggressively human setting - no aliens allowed - about debt, compassion, and what it means to be human. I also actually wrote a short story in this world, and maybe I'll revisit it one day.

* * *

I'm sorry that in the end, I couldn't provide a brilliant academic-yet-clever treatise on the building of worlds, but I hope you found what I did write both useful and entertaining.

And when someone asks you if you're a god, what do you say?

* * *

  • Tell me of your worlds!
  • What issues have you encountered in worldbuilding. When have you made something really awesome, and when have you really screwed up?
  • Have you ever encountered the problem of paying too much attention to the world and not enough to the story? What did you do about it?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

One Shot Kill

Wow, I've been producing a lot of posts about roleplaying lately. I'm blaming it on National Novel Writing Month and the attendant burnout. I've had a hard time wanting to write, let alone write about writing. Fear not, though; this morning on the train I made some significant progress on the short story I mentioned earlier. And despite trials and tribulations, I'm still here blogging. If worst comes to worst, I can always direct your attention to something else out there in the internet, or post about what I'm reading. That's not too lame, is it?

Anyway, today I want to talk about the art of the one shot. Perhaps its because I am in the midst of planning one shot for the Abigail and our houseguest, Rebecca. Perhaps its got something to do with the phase of the moon. I don't know.

Running a one shot is much more like writing a story than any other kind of game running. When you run a one shot, you are producing a short story-like, encapsulated experience. Like a short story - or any kind of story, for that matter - a one shot has a beginning, a middle, and an end, a set list of characters, and a limited number of settings. Contrast that, if you will, with a long running campaign, which has a huge cast of characters, can take place over years and lack a well-defined middle or end, and might well trot all over a real or imagined globe, and you'll see what I mean.

Some people (*cough cough the Abigail cough*) don't really like one shots very much. They prefer a longer game experience, with room for scads and scads of character development, both mechanical and narrative. These people usually end up playing in one shots once and a while, since they are one of the ways we gamers get to know each other (think dogs sniffing each others' butts), but they don't like them much, and they certainly don't run them. While I'll take a long campaign over a one shot any day, however, I consider one shots to be an art, and I love playing in them. I love running them even more.

The "perfect" one shot exists in the space between two extremes. On the one hand, a one shot needs lots of structure. A one shot isn't like a session of a longer campaign: you only get four to six hours to run this thing, and if it goes over, you can't just pick up next week. On the other hand, a one shot needs to be as free form as possible. Nobody likes being railroaded; all gaming experiences need to have some unstructured space for players to take part in telling the story. This is even more important in a one shot, again, because of time. If the session goes poorly for one (or more!) of your players, you need to stay adaptable, think on your fight, and fix it immediately. You can't just try again next week. If you're going to go for that elusive burning zeppelin experience, you need to do it right the hell now. Most one shots slip in one direction or another - the best manage to not go too far.

Over the years, I have played in many one shots, many of them run by my friend Jon (warning: while he revels in livejournal friends, his blog is mostly political commentary and photographs of middle-eastern countries - he's a gamer, I swear, but it doesn't show on his blog). His wisdom when it comes to one shots - invaluable over the years - is to create three "set pieces" in your mind: one the beginning, one the middle, and one the end. Everything in between is flexible, as long as it eventually leads to these set pieces. Even the set pieces themselves are fairly changeable. Who is present, exactly where they take place, and what happens next are all variable, but the set pieces provide an important skeleton for your one shot to grow around. Even, Jon says, if you end up abandoning one or two of the set pieces (if you end up ditching your beginning your game is totally out of control), the fact that you had them at one point will significantly aid your creative process.

Jon's framework works very well for him, and it has worked well for me, too. However, I have developed my own approach, which is similar to his (and sometimes, while I'm using it, I have Jon's approach playing in the back of my head), and I have found works even better for me. First, however, let's have a look at two roleplaying games that interact in interesting ways with the art of the one shot.

The first is Spirit of the Century (Wikipedia page here, for you wikizens) by Evil Hat Productions, a game of high-flying, over-the-top pulp adventure (of course I like this game: you all know about me and zeppelins). Spirit of the Century declares that it's mission is "to deliver an evening of fun, a 'pick-up' game that requires little preparation, but provides hours of entertainment." The "little preparation" part isn't quite true, in some ways, as you'll see below, but Spirit of the Century nonetheless presents an interesting second approach to one shots.

In Spirit of the Century, the character creation process is quite long and involved. You start with a character concept, but you flesh this person out by imagining her prior adventures, most of which involve one or more of the other players at the table. The end result (of a fairly long process involving note cards and on-the-fly creation) is a set of characters with strong interrelations: "Doctor Tutankhamen! I see you survived our encounter with Dick Mystic in Bulgaria, after all. Well, no matter, it's time to put our differences aside and team up with our old rival Madame Violet to stop the sinister Sister Sinister" - I'm running out of ideas here, cut me some slack - "from stealing the Hope Diamond to power her demonic rituals. Quick, to the Burning Zeppelin!"

To a clever GM, these interrelations are meat and bread for one shots. In fact, I think the reason Spirit of the Century bills itself as a pick-up game despite the lengthy character generation process is that once these characters are created, you can easily combine and recombine them to create all sorts of interesting plot lines.

This is how Spirit of the Century represents a second approach to one shots. Instead of creating firm (not rigid) set pieces and then letting the game flow from them, encourage your players to create exciting and deeply interrelated characters, and create a story that emerges from those characters and the backstories they spawn from.

Houses of the Blooded (Wikipedia page here) by John Wick - different Jo(h)n - doesn't bill itself as a one shot friendly game, but in many ways, it is. What makes Houses of the Blooded, an operatic game about love, romance, passion, and revenge, so one shot friendly is its revolutionary, player-driven information mechanic. Rather than having players roll to see what their character knows or finds out, as determined by what the GM tells them, players roll to see what their character knows or finds out, as determined by what the player invents. Right there. On the spot. As a result, preparation for a Houses of the Blooded game can consist of the GM thinking to himself "a party... having the players going to a party might be nice. And maybe there will be a murder. I like murders. Or maybe a ghost. Who knows?" and then rolling over and going back to sleep (if you detect a little bitterness, I was going to run Houses of the Blooded, but my players insisted on Hunter: the Vigil, another brilliant, but much more traditional, game). A longer game would probably still require a little more planning, but for a one shot, this attribute is solid gold.

When I run one shots, I tend to use a combination of these approaches. I put a lot of power into the hands of my players, letting them make detailed characters with interrelated backstories. I also have an idea of where my one shot is going to begin and end, with a couple of set pieces playing, vaguely in the back of my mind.

Finally, I pay a lot of attention to the entire situation. I try to create interesting non-player characters full of exceiting tensions - with each other, with my players' characters, with the setting - that drive the story. I wind the story up and then let it snap, using continued player input and set pieces to guide the story and keep it from spinning apart.

I'm running on Thursday night. I'll let you know how it goes.

* * *

Scattercat: "No one is stronger than Hurculor!"

* * *

  • What are your most striking positive and negative one shot experiences, as a GM and a player?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Towards the end of yesterday's post I was getting a little impatient with the whole blogging thing, so I kind of rushed. Despite the fact that Cartomancy is actually a fairly serious project of mine - I'm pledged to have a playtestable version by next year's GenCon - I gave it a rather brief treatment. So, today I'm going to talk a little more about Cartomancy in specific and game design in general.

The idea of writing a roleplaying game that somehow incorporated tarot cards has been with me - and a lot of other people - for a long time. After going through several incarnations, including a LARP during college, I have finally settled on a mechanic that I think I like.

It's fairly simple: the game's primary resource is Tarot cards. You have a hand of cards, which you spend to achieve things and draw as a reward. Your character sheet consists of four Fates and a list of Skills and Equipment. The four Fates are the four Tarot suits: Coins, Cups, Rods, and Swords. Each Fate has an associated number, from 1 to 10, and then Page, Knight, Queen, and King (P, N, Q, and K). The Fates are not attributes in the conventional sense. Instead of describing how good your character is at something, they describe to what degree your character's fate lies in that direction. A high Fate score means that your character will have an easier time resistinge efforts to sway him in that regard: that is, a powerful Rods score means that you, the player, have more control over whether or not your character succeeds in a fight, not whether or not your character is any good at fighting. In fact, your character might be really, really lousy at fighting. A high Rods score means that you have the power to determine this. Each Fate also has a descriptor, a brief phrase that outlines your character's fate in that arena. These Fates can be good (in which case they are called Destinies), bad (in which case they are called Dooms), or you can leave it blank for now (in which case, you have what is called a Fortune). The only way you can improve your character's score in his Fates is to achieve them. Every time you achieve a Fate, your score in that Fate goes up, and you recieve some other benefits. Dooms are worth more than Destinies. At the beginning of play, everyone also selects for each of his Fates another character's Fate to declared Crossed or Conjunctional. When one of your Fates crosses someone else's, you are saying "I can only get this if he doesn't get that." When your Fates are Conjunctional, you are saying "I can only get this if he does get that."

In conflict, everyone gets to play one card from their hand. The order of play is determined by that card's numeric value, plus all relevant Skills and Attributes.Yyou can opt to go later, but you can't go earlier, and if there's a race to the bottom - which there will be - whoever has the highest starting number wins. You play your cards as though the table were one big Tarot spread: you can Cross someone's card with yours, narrating how you defy them, or you can Support someone's card with yours, narrating how you strengthen their efforts, or you can Follow someone's card with yours, moving the scene along and rendering sealing off the followed card from further interference, and so on.

There's also some funky stuff around the villains of the piece: the fae. Old, mad horrors, beautiful and terrible, who used to rule the world but were defeated by the Astronomers and the power of fate. They don't use cards. They aren't playing the game by the same rules as all these mud-creatures. They use dice.

*whew* That's a lot of words. The question is, what does it all mean?

At last year's GenCon, I went to a game design seminar. In theory, the Sons of Kryos podcast on gaming (one of my favorites) will eventually post the seminar, which they recorded. There, I learned about Jared Sorenson's Three Questions. These questions were very helpful for me in understanding what Cartomancy is really about, and now I will share them with you. As articulated by John Wick in his game, Houses of the Blooded (link party!), these questions are:

  1. What is my game about?
  2. How does my game do that?
  3. What behaviors does my game reward and punish?

Let's take them one at a time.

What is My Game About?

Cartomancy is about heroic people struggling against or alongside fate to achieve great things, becoming entangled in fate and in each other, and either being destroyed by fate, rising above it, or sinking into it and never escaping.

In Cartomancy, think Oedipus. Think pretty much everything in Norse mythology.

All of this, against a backdrop of humanity rising from a dark age of ignorance and suspicion (think Renaissance Italy) to a bright future... or towards an even darker age. You get to decide.

How Does My Game Do That?

Cartomancy puts the way your character interacts with fate (through the four Fates) in center stage. The flavor of your character's fate - her Destinies, Dooms, and Fortunes - are likewise front and center. The tactile experience of holding the Tarot cards and laying them out in a pattern on the table in front of you makes you feel like fate is in your hands... which, in Cartomancy, it is.

On the rare occasion that the fae show up, they break the rules. Instead of cards, they use dice, something even more random than the cards, creating the experience that they are not of the world. They are other: chaotic, alien, and dangerous.

What Behaviors Does My Game Reward and Punish?

My game rewards choosing negative fates (Dooms) by making them more rewarding than good fates (Destinies). You are rewarded for seeing your character's fate through to the end, no matter what the cost, or how complicated it gets.

My game rewards stories of entangled destinies by mandating that players relate their Fates of their character with the Fates of other player's characters. You are rewarded for playing a part in other characters' destinies.

* * *

Anyway, as I mentioned before, there is a problem with Cartomancy. Despite the fact that I love me my world building, the big problem is the setting. Of course, the system probably has problems, too, but if I ever got my act together and finished writing it down in a way that someone else could read, I'm basically ready for my first round of playtesting.

The problem with Cartomancy's setting is that it came out a little too typical. I was going for: Renaissance-Italy-like fantasy world, with cultural tensions between the numerous independent city-states and a powerful, secretive pan-national organization - the Astronomers - who claim to have discovered the power of fate and banished the fae years ago. The devil is in the details, and these details produced a setting that, on further reflection, was kind of boring. The Astronomers ended up being a rather typical Crystal Dragon Jesus. The city-states ended up your average, boring Requesite Decadent Culture, the Obligatory Iron-Hard Northerners, the Place Where Cool Swords Come From, and the kingdom of Has Ambigiously Moral Imperial Aspirations.

So, it's back to the Writing Desk with Cartomancy, because I've been working on this idea for way too long to just let it go.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Burning Update Experience I: The Fundamentals

I still haven't decided how often I'm going to devote a post to simply updating my readership on how I'm doing as a writer, what I'm working on and how faithfully I'm pursuing it. Commentary on the topic would be welcome (hint hint). Nonetheless, I'm going to forge ahead with Burning Update Experience I: The Fundamentals.

To start with, I want to lay out how I think about what I'm working on.

My creative brain has three mixed-metaphor rooms: the Writing Desk, the Back Burner, and the Threshing Floor. There's a fourth room, but we don't talk about it. That's where the... things live. The most raw ideas. I don't go there, but sometimes things come out of it. Silliness, aside, that's where the parts of my creative process happen that I can't talk about, because I can't articulate what they mean to me. Since this is a blog for talking about the creative process, I'm going to just leave that part alone.

The Writing Desk is where whatever I'm working on right now lives. As long as I'm putting words on paper (or screen) on a semiregular basis, that project lives in the Writing Desk. Things on the Writing Desk certainly change and grow, but they are probably going to persist in more or less their current form until they reach a conclusion.

When a project is more or less set in its current form, but I'm not really doing anything with it (or even pretending I'm still doing something with it) it lives in the Back Burner. That's where I let ideas sit and bubble, but leave them alone for a while. Maybe I'm too busy, or a little burned out, or just want to give a story a rest for a while. When that happens, the idea lives in the Back Burner.

Finally, the Threshing Floor is where ideas go when there's something wrong with them, but there are things about them I still like. A concept sitting in the Threshing Floor is likely to be just that - threshed - before it ever sees the Writing Desk again. By threshed, I mean that it will be left to ferment until its bits start to come loose, and then it will be vigorously struck again and again until it shakes apart. Those parts - themes, events, characters, setting elements, and so on - will likely coalesce into new concepts, or be added to something in the Back Burner or Writing Desk. Or, perhaps they'll slide through that black pit of a doorway in the back of the Threshing Floor and never be seen or heard from again in anything even remotely resembling their current form.

There really aren't any rules for how concepts slide back and forth between these three imaginary rooms. Sometimes something will leap fully into being on the Writing Desk. Sometimes something will be born on the Back Burner and sit there for a while before I work on it. Sometimes something will bounce back and forth between the Writing Desk and the Threshing Floor for years before it finds a home. And sometimes ideas make a stately progress from unnameable darkness to Threshing Floor to Back Burner to Writing Desk, and sometimes back again in just as orderly a manner.

Ok, that being said, here's what I'm working on right now:

Threshing Floor

Ideas that live here are, by nature, really really vague. They're concepts that intrigue me, sometimes with vestigial stories attached, sometimes just "I want to write about X."

Werewolves: I've kind of wanted to write something about werewolves - or play a game about werewolves, or something - for a while now. I don't know exactly why. It probably has to do with having read Moon Called by Patricia Briggs, followed immediately by Lonely Werewolf Girl by Martin Millar about a month and a half ago (dude's got a blog... blogroll, meet Martin Millar, Martin Millar, meet blogroll - I'm sure the two of you will get along just fine). Incidentally, I recommend both books without hesitation, though they are very different works. Moon Called is a slightly... um... romancy modern fantasy/horror - really good and really fun, though not terribly sophisticated, while Lonely Werewolf Girl is a very hip, very urban, very clever story about werewolves who are fashion designers, crossdressers, and really, really need therapy.

Interspecies Romance: I off-handedly mentioned this idea at the end of Friday's post. What can I say? I like complicated romances, and I like the idea of writing fantasy with a totally made up intelligent species, a la Star Trek's various aliens, but that is still a fantasy. I kind of want to see how far I can go with squicking my readers out, making these two people who are in love as physically different as I can manage, facing them with all sorts of prejudice, discrimination, and violence, and when the readers get a little creeped out because, I don't know, she's a person and he's a huge white furry apeman (for example), they get to examine why they feel that way, and what is says about their expectations and prejudices.

I also have two roleplaying game concepts that are best described as Threshing Floor material.

The first, Deeper Sleep, is a game inspired by The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, Sandman, and some of my own weird dream experiences. The idea is that you play an ordinary person's "dream-self" having trippy adventures in mankind's collective unconscious. The themes are the balance between brilliance and madness, as expressed by difficulty in staying asleep to enjoy a really cool dream while still staying aware enough of the dreaming experience to enjoy it. I have thoughts of various character options that bring you closer to waking and dreaming, that too much of either has perils (too much waking and you wake up, too much dreaming and you all entirely at the mercy of the dream world), and of "sweet spots," where you can choose a level of dreaming that your character is best at. My ideas are quite vague, though, so Deeper Sleep belongs on the Threshing Floor.

Similarly, I have an idea tentatively entitled What Celebrations (Nietzsche reference) for a game about monolotry, morality, faith, and the dangers and opportunities of organized religion. This one's really vague: the setting is a river delta with many small settled and semisettled tribes, each with their own gods, and one large city (and several smaller ones) revolutionizing their culture. In the cities, cultures clash and gods fall by the wayside, and demons move in... but is this really a bad thing? Are the gods any better than the demons? And what about humans? Are they angels in flesh, or monsters in the making?

Back Burner

Right now the Back Burner is home to two projects, one rpg and one novel.

The novel on the Back Burner is the oft-referenced A Knight of the Land, my ecofantasy epic of honor, love, treachery. The trouble is, what A Knight of the Land needs is editing, and I've never edited a novel before. I plan on doing NaNoEdMo (National Novel Editing Month), which I'm told will educate me fully on the topic.

Next is my rpg Cartomancy. Cartomancy has a strong system (I think) that uses Tarot cards as a resource to influence the story in a way reminiscent of the Castle of Crossed Destinies (another book you should read now). Unfortunately... the setting is weak. Really weak. It needs a rewrite from the concepts up, and I haven't got the burn to pursue it right now.

Writing Desk

I have three projects on the Writing Desk right now, which is two more than I like to have.

The first two I've talked about already: Rat and Starling and my NaNo novel, Ghostly Tam Lin. There's also a rather typical sword-and-sorcery short story with a twist that I think is fun, anyway: the magic sword draws a rather morally drab character to good, rather than being the temptation that drives a good man to evil deeds. I might let you all read it when it's done. It hasn't got a title, in any case, but I think it's got potential.

As for how I'm doing right now? I'm still a little burned out from NaNoWriMo, a bad combination of exhausted from the effort and disappointed that I didn't win, but I'm more or less back on the horse. My plan is to finish my short story, then polish off Ghostly Tam Lin, and finally dive back into Rat and Starling, where I will stay for the forseeable future.

Next time I post an update, I'll let you know how that went.

Friday, December 5, 2008


Lots of little postlets this week. Odd.

Anyway you can follow me on Twitter if you are so inclined. I'm electricpaladin. If you follow me, I'll follow you. It's a thing.

And that's probably it for a week. I'll see you on Monday, unless I see you at the TGIO party in San Francisco!

If You Spackle Us, Are We Not Aroused? - Nonhuman Characters

Ok... that's probably the single most obscure post title yet. Well, I mean, I've had some pretty strange and obscure titles here on the Burning Zeppelin Experience, but that one really takes the cake. I'm not sure even I understand it.

* * *

When I was a kid, I used to love Star Trek. When I was but a little lad, I used to watch the old William Shatner Star Trek with my dad. He had the entire series on videocassette, which was, at the time, proof that he was the most awesome human being on the planet. When I got a little older, we'd watch Star Trek: the Next Generation together, and that was even better. We never really got into Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, though we watched more than a little of it. Ironically, of all the recent iterations of the franchise, it was Star Trek: Voyager that we watched the most of... the one neither of us liked very much. We even gave Star Trek: Enterprise a chance. I had seen all the movies that existed at that point several times each by the time I was ten years old, and I have seen every movie since then, in the theatre. Aw, who the hell am I kidding? I still love Star Trek, there just isn't any on TV anymore.

Anyway, one of the things I used to love on Star Trek were the aliens. Man, the aliens were awesome. You had the cold and logical, yet also dangerously passionate Vulcans and their black sheep cousins, the underhanded Romulans, the honorable, but vicious Klingons, and those funky lizard guys, the Gorn (ok, the Gorn were only in two episodes, but I thought they were cool looking), just to name a few. There were blue dudes and red dudes and telepathic dudes and dudes with tentacles and dudes with antennae and undeniably sexy green chicks. Sexy, sexy green chicks. Three of my favorite characters were (you guessed it) Mr. Spock, Data, and Lieutenant Worf.

The appeal of nonhuman characters is manifold.

Firstly, I find that by making a character nonhuman in most ways, it's possible to make the ways that the character is human stand out in interesting ways. Take Data from Stark Trek, for example. While ostensibly nonhuman, he experiences loyalty and love. These traits humanize the character, and also stand out in him, because they are so distinct from the rest of him. The writers were able to tell great stories about love and loyalty using Data.

Secondly - and Star Trek did this best - you can use alien creatures to cast real life issues in new light. This is an outgrowth of reason number one. Make them alien creatures, but have them be dealing with issues of sexuality, racism, nationalism, or whatever, and the differences - they're blue, they have magic powers, they don't die, whatever - will highlight the similarities.

Finally, a nonhuman characters can give you a license to be really creative. Want to give a main character some unlikely personality traits, special abilities, or cultural biases and afraid your audience won't be able to suspend disbelief? Present her as an alien creature of some kind, and you're golden! Similarly, nonhuman characters are great for stories about alienation, difference, and discrimination. Tell a story of a nonhuman among humans (or a human among nonhumans) and you can take a story about what it's like to not belong to a whole new level.

Oddly enough, as I drifted away from science fiction and towards fantasy, I never felt the same kinship with the fantasy races. Dwarves, elves, gnomes, and so on don't really do it for me the same way that the aliens of Star Trek did. As I matured as a fantasy writer, I found myself slipping away from the usual assumptions of fantasy species. In most of my latest works, I either assume that only humans exist or cherry pick one or two 'standard fantasy races' to exist in the setting, and only when I have some specific use for them. A Knight of the Land, for example, features the Na'Aril, troll-like creatures that are tied to the land, and Darak'hur, dragons-as-the-souls-of-the-landscape. Rat and Starling has elves, and that's it, but they're... not your grandpa's elves.

The question is what did Star Trek do right that fantasy did wrong?

As I look back, I think the answer is that every alien on Stark Trek was, like the trolls, dragons, and elves of my stories, designed with a specific purpose in mind. Fantasy, on the other hand, tends to fall into predictable (boring) tropes. They're elves, so they're long-lived and snooty. They're dwarfs, so they're short, greedy, and like to make stuff, and probably they live underground. They're gnomes, so... whatever. They're gnomish.

This is sad, because I don't think this needs to be this way. There is a lot of potential in fantasy for exciting nonhuman creatures. So, go out there are write fantasy stories with more cool alien creatures. I'll be watching.

Just, uh... keep your spackle to yourself, ok sparky?

* * *

  • Where have you written nonhuman characters and had it work really well, or really poorly, and why do you think it turned out the way it did?
  • What are some particularly good or particularly bad examples of nonhuman characters in fiction?
  • Wouldn't a story about kung-fu nine-feet tall ape-people be awesome? I've got this idea that one of the main characters is an outcast, albino kung-fu nine foot tall ape-man who is seen as a total pervert because he has a human girlfriend. And they fight crime! Or something.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

After NaNo

Well, I've been putting it off for a while, but it's time for the post NaNo post.

My final wordcount was 34,580 words. I didn't win. Neither did I make the secondary goal of 35k that I set for myself. However, I do feel that I learned from the experience, so it's fair to say that National Novel Writing Month 2008 was not a total loss.

I learned that the goal of 1,700 words a day is hard. It isn't necessarily hard to write that much on any given day, but to maintain as the days and weeks stretch on. I learned that life getting in the way of writing can be a real pain. I learned that my standard method of writing - that is, writing by hand, then transcribing into computer - slows me down a lot. I learned that, luckily, it isn't so much trains that do it for me as it is getting out of my apartment. Coffee shops are great.

Most of all, though, I learned that I should curb my arrogance. Ok, sure, I'm pretty good. Not only am I an at least halfway decent wordsmith, but I'm getting pretty good at the whole 'just write' thing. But I'm far from a master. I have a lot to learn, and I'll learn it faster if I keep that in mind rather than running my mouth off about how easy it is.

In the way of positive lessons, I learned that I can get pretty far on sheer chutzpah, even if I'm not 100% certain of my original premise. I also learned that I can get pretty close to winning. 35k isn't much for someone who was quite as cavalier as I was, but it's pretty good for a first-time NaNoer.

My primary reaction to the end of National Novel Writing Month is relief. November has been a crazy month, an NaNoWriMo ended up being the least of my worries. Now I can relax, let my poor cooked brain mellow out a little, and put my life back together. I am eager to get back to the projects I have left sitting by the wayside - Rat and Starling, some short stories I'd like to finish and maybe try to sell, my one-on-one gaming with the Abigail - though I will finish Ghostly Tam Lin, and probably soon. The timing is also quite good, as the folks I'm working with on my second freelance project are probably beginning to move again. I should be getting my outline this weekend (yay!).

Now that I haven't got NaNoWriMo weighing on my conscience, how am I going to keep writing? Well, that's in part what this blog is for, giving me someone to confess to, a community to hold me accountable for my writing. Instead of trying to post every day about my writing, I think I'll devote one post a week or so to talking about my projects and how much headway I'm making with them. The should be cool.

Of course, I'm going to do NaNo again next year. Next year... next year is the year I'm going to kick National Novel Writing Month's ass.

By the way, the Abigail did win (*grumble grumble fish*). We'll be going to the NaNo party in San Francisco on Friday, and if I have any readers in the Bay Area who aren't already my friends, who did NaNo and want to meet me, well, there's your first opportunity.

Blog Featurage: The Gift that Keeps On Giving

When you're a tiny little blog hoping to be a big, grown up blog one day, every little bit helps. As I've written before, I have Google Analytics set up on my blog, to better track my popularity and keep a handle on which posts are getting attention (so I know which posts you taciturn folks enjoy the most), as well as discover who's linked to me so I can thank them appropriately. Anyway, I've noticed something interesting: I Should Be Writing (which I, again, recommend to everyone and her puppy) keeps on sending people my way, even though Mur Lafferty only linked to me once, weeks ago.

A little internet research has revealed that I get a surge in visitors (some of which probably stick around) every single time Mur Lafferty updates I Should Be Writing! How awesome is that?

In my other life (one of my two other lives), I'm a self-apprenticed internet marketer, so my ability to figure this out is also highly entertaining.

I'll let you all get back to your real lives now, but thanks for sharing this moment of excitement and optimism with me. And if you're here from I Should be Writing, stick around for a real post, which should be appearing around midday.

* * *

Oh, and by the way...

I'm looking to buy a new computer (this is relevant, because it is with my computer that I post to the Burning Zeppelin Experience). In my personal blog, I just posted an entry asking for advice on what machine to buy. If you're of the computer savvy persuasion and would like to enter the fray (by which I mean as of now you can still be the first to comment!) I'll take advice from anyone and everyone.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Way to a Gamer's Heart

If you read my personal livejournal, you already know that I just got my check from White Wolf, for my contribution to a game book I can't name because it hasn't been announced yet. My very first check for writing. I'm overjoyed. Anyway, in honor of this momentous occasion, let's talk about writing for games: what I like, what I don't like, what I try to do, what I fear I do wrong, and what some of my favorites are.

Incidentally, if you're interested in this topic, I recommend you check out Master Plan, one of the several gaming podcasts I listen to. Ryan Macklin spends a lot of time talking about the ins and outs of writing roleplaying games that are fun, effective, and accessible. In particular, I should draw your attention to Episode #25, where Ryan talks about the need for rpg material to be entertaining.

Now that I've totally spoiled you for what I'm going to say next, let's begin.

This may come as a surprise, but I'm not convinced that a roleplaying book has to be a brilliant piece of prose. Oh, it can (probably should) contain some good prose, whether it's in the form of chapter fictions, comic book pages, or spurious primary sources. That sort of stuff is essential to building mood and explicating setting and tone. If the rest of the game is clear, workmanlike text, that's fine. On some level, rpg material is like a user's manual for an awesome toy. The fun comes once you've figured out the toy, and the manual should help you get to that point.

You'll note, however, that I wrote 'that's fine.' Fine it may be, but it's far from ideal.

If a roleplaying game can be made entertaining - maybe even exciting - to read without sacrificing any of the clarity, that is the golden grail of rpg writing. It's rarely done, but when it is achieved, it always blows my mind.

My favorite example of this is the game Weapons of the Gods produced by Eos Press. In brief: it's a high-flying Wuxia-style martial arts game. What's exciting is that except for a brief section explaining the basic rules and character generation process, the game text itself is a series of short fictions explicating the setting's many varied facets. Each and every thing - every region, every NPC, every style of martial art or iota of secret lore, every philosophy, every historical period, every ancient and puissant magical weapon - is presented with its own little ficlet.

This astounding trait is surmounted by two more amazing facts: everything in the book is interrelated, meaning that a section on history links to sections on philosophy, several martial arts, and a magical weapon, at least, and everything in the book is presented as something a character might start with a connection to. In fact, it's possible to purchase an entangled destiny for a fraction of the price of an actual trait, meaning that you 'tag' the trait for later involvement in your story. Revolutionary! After purchasing Weapons of the Gods at GenCon, I read it in one day on the way back to California.

The second consideration about a piece of game material is the immortal question: "what can I do with this?" Have you ever read a game book and thought to yourself "this is great, but I can't actually do anything with it"? Yeah, I hate that.

Writing game material that answers that immortal question is another difficult balance. The key, you see, is to write just enough that the text is chock-full of cool stuff, but not so much that the reader doesn't have wiggle room. Roleplaying is ultimately a dynamic art form, and if everything is nailed down, the dynamism goes right out the door. Unfortunately, well... if you're a writer, you understand how hard it is to not write, even when it's what's best for the project. It's like telling a sprinter that the key to winning a race is to not run.

Coming to the rescue in this case is another favorite of mine: Unknown Armies by Atlas Games. In some ways a slightly generic urban occult horror game, Unknown Armies explicates much of it's plot via rumors, the sorts of things someone embedded in the setting might hear if he had his ear to the ground in the occult underworld. The form is so popular that "Unknown Armies-Style Rumor Threads" are common on RPGnet for a variety of games and White Wolf has picked it up for some of it's newest supplements. How are rumors revolutionary? As a writer, they let you write lots without overdefining the game material. All you have to throw together some possibilities. Some of them can be true, some can be false, some can be ambiguous, and all of them are stylish and atmospheric. Write them so they sound like rumory tidbits put them in a list, and bingo! Rumors.

While I'm at it, I should note another awesome victory in this facet of rpg writing: Keys to the Supernal Tarot, written for White Wolf's Mage: the Awakening by Matthew McFarland. The theme is simple: one Mage: the Awakening thing - person, place, thing, creature, character option, you name it - for every card of the Major Arcana, each of them exploring the themes of that card as it relates to the themes of Mage. Not only are all of these game items full of delicious hooks, each of them is also presented both as itself and as its inverted version; just as the cards can be flipped upside-down, subverting, weakening, or delaying their meanings, so to can the things in this book be reversed. Good things become bad, bad things become good, and hopeful things become problematic. Each option is presented with several possible uses and McFarland - already a master of writing just enough - leaves plenty of room to wriggle.

As for myself, I wish I could say that what I created for White Wolf was a brilliant example of everything I just wrote about... but I can't. As my first ever attempt at professional writing of any kind, especially professional roleplaying writing, I decided not to do anything too daring. I do think, however, that what I created was interesting, clear, and full of great possibilities, but not too full.

Of course, you'll all have to buy the book when it comes out and tell me what you think.