Taking a Break – Be Back October 20th

My original plan was to take a week off from blogging and recording new episodes of The Amerikkalainen Report following the release of Starship Tyche. I’m still working, I’m still going to school, I’m still adjusting to life in Finland, but I decided I needed a little more down time to balance things out. So I wanted to back away from social media and the internet in general for a bit, until I was ready to start talking about my next big projects.

I’ve decided to extend that for another week. These are my last few weeks of school before I graduate with my business degree. I’ve got a paper that’s more of a mini-thesis to finish writing during that time. I’ve got finals to study for. I have writing to do. I’ve always said that if something is important to you, you’ll make the time. Blogging and vlogging (I still hate that word) are important to me, but school, making a living, my health and my sanity are far more important.

Regularly scheduled updates will resume no later than October 20th. That will give me a chance to see what this last month of school will be like and adjust accordingly. There are some canned posts and reruns in the pipeline, so the site won’t go “dark”. I reserve the right to come back early, so subscribe to this blog and the YouTube channel just in case. I will also know what sort of schedule will be realistic for me to maintain during this last stretch of my academic career.

See you then!

Posted in Life | Comments Off

A Day in the Life, Part 1

6:29am

Already been up for close to an hour, can’t sleep. Today’s already going to be atypical because Katie doesn’t have class until 2:15 this afternoon, so she’ll be around the flat rather than heading out around 9am. That doesn’t change my routines by much, though.

Since I’ve been up, I’ve checked and answered email and messages on social media, looked over my schedule and to-do list for today, and read a little. Katie’s alarm will go off at 7, so I’ll try to put down a few words until then.

7:07am

571 words down. Katie’s awake. Time to make coffee and porridge and spend a little time with her before going back to work. I write today’s menu for lunch and dinner on the mirror in the kitchen with a dry erase marker. It amuses Katie, and helps me to remember later what I was planning to cook, when I’m all up inside my head because I’ve been writing.

7:43am

Breakfast eaten, coffee consumed. Katie and I shared out schedules for the day and had some pleasant conversation.

Now I need to log in and watch a recording of the latest lecture for my class, which happened at around 1am my time. The professor is going over the assignment due this week. Most of this is boilerplate, and the paper I have to write is pretty straightforward, but some instructors like to drop little “Easter eggs” into the lectures, criteria that isn’t on the rubric or in the written assignment description. It’s kind of insidious, but it’s one way to get people to attend the lectures, or at least watch the recordings.

9:08am

1599 words down. Class was short, no twists or surprises. I downloaded a copy of the professor’s Powerpoint presentation, which I’ll referenced when I write my paper tomorrow. Today is all about writing for money. I’m thinking I’d like to push for a 5,000 word day. I’ve got earbuds in with NPR podcasts on, not really listening to them. I just need some background noise to help tune out the rest of the world.

10:22am

2910 words down. 5000 word day seems possible. Time to switch things up. Since Katie’s home I promised her lunch at around 11am. The next things that I need to write are going to require a bit of a flow state, once I start I won’t want to stop, and I’ll be grumpy if I have to quit in 40 minutes and I’m not ready to stop. Switching to copy editing some existing stuff that needs some extra care.

10:49am

Got sucked down a different rabbit hole, my author bio. It was one of the things I needed to edit, to update it to include recent projects. I hate it. I always hate it. It never flows well. Ended up reading other author and game designer bios online. I didn’t like any of those either. Too wordy, or simply not up to date. Found an author website that hadn’t been updated since 2011. Wow. I’ve decided to go start lunch.

11:21am

Lunch was hot dog sandwiches (sliced in half, pan-fried, on bread with mustard and pickles) with macaroni salad and beet slaw I made yesterday. Katie and I talked about the connections between being a talker and being a writer, not in that one skill necessarily translates to the other but where the overlap in comfort level occurs. She’s comfortable writing because she’s a talker. I’m more comfortable talking when I have a script I’ve written.

Remembered something small that I need to write that I can hopefully bang out before my next workflow interruption, scheduled for noon.

With no irony lost on me, A Day in the Life will continue with Part 2 tomorrow.

Posted in Life, Work | Tagged | Leave a comment

Not Playing It Right

rpg01At Asparagus Jumpsuit we’re pretty egalitarian about game systems and styles of play. To date, we’ve published material for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and the Fate RPG, which are about as far apart as possible in terms of game design philosophy and the experiences they create for players. We like all sorts of games, for all sorts of reasons, and we hope to be able to create things for an even wider variety of systems in the future.

As an individual, I certainly have my own preferred style of play. Just because I’m a game designer doesn’t mean I’m not human. I’ve written articles, here and elsewhere, that may lean more toward one direction than another. On social media, and in private conversations, I’ve been pretty open about what my favorite sorts of games are, and what it is about those games that makes them my favorites. Ive written about things that I’ve enjoyed, and why I’ve enjoyed them. I’ve written about what works for me, and why.

Some people disagree with that. They feel that as a writer, and as a game designer, I should be publicly neutral. Unless, of course, I’m promoting something I’ve written or published, in which case it’s okay to heap hyperbole upon a system. I don’t see it that way. I feel that rather than playing politic, it’s better to be transparent and let you know where my biases lay. Be clear about the things that I like, as a player, and as a gamemaster, and as a reader, and the things that just aren’t to my personal tastes. I think that honesty makes the relationship I have with my readers and my customers that much stronger. I think it allows you to see what sort of person I am, and whether the things I write and publish are likely to be aligned with your own tastes.

While my biases do show through, I have never, ever said that what I like is the right way, or the only way, and dismissed other ways as inferior or wrong. Quite the opposite. A few years ago I wrote something called the Rolpunk Manifesto which stated, in brief, that we’re all gamers and should do our best to support each other, focus on our common ground rather than our differences, and that the only “wrong” way to play is to not be having fun. That doesn’t mean that we don’t get to have preferences, or opinions. It means we shouldn’t be jerks about our preferences and opinions.

Look at it this way: If we walked into a restaurant to have dinner together, and ordered different things off of the menu, it would not be a slight towards me if you ordered something that I didn’t care for. It would not be a grand act of oppression if I didn’t order the exact same thing as you. We might have a brief conversation about our individual choices. We can still sit together at the same table, and have a civil conversation about topics of mutual interest. We each might even want to try a bite of the other’s dish.

In retrospect, I do think there’s another way to get it wrong other than not having fun. It doesn’t have to do with systems or style or play or game design philosophy, though. It has to do with us, as individuals. The way we can get it wrong is to be closed-minded and so locked into our preferences that we cut ourselves off from trying new things, having new experiences, and meeting new people. I like what I like, but that’s evolved in over 30 years of trying a wide variety of games with a broad cross-section of the gaming community. That doesn’t mean you have to give up your favorite game or your long-running campaign. It just means that, maybe, there’s an advantage to being able to say “I don’t care for that, but I understand why you do”, rather than “your favorite game sucks.”

Posted in Geek | Tagged | Leave a comment

5 Thing I Learned Writing Starship Tyche

tyche-cover-smallHe that knows not, and knows not that he knows not is a fool. Shun him.

He that knows not, and knows  that he knows not is a pupil. Teach him.

He that knows, and knows not that he knows is asleep. Wake him.

He that knows, and knows that he knows is a teacher. Follow him.

Arabic proverb

Writing and publishing the first full game from Asparagus Jumpsuit was an incredible experience. I laughed, I nearly cried, I felt elation and terror and everything in between. Then I spend a lot of time deconstructing what I actually learned, so that next time things go more smoothly and every step of the process, including the output, is even better.

I validated what I thought I knew
A lot of research went into writing Starship Tyche. A lot of it had to do with setting information, to give it verisimilitude, so that the science and the sociology felt right, so that it stayed true to the genre, and so on. There was a lot of research on the game system, so that things meshed well with the setting and so that I wasn’t reinventing wheels. More research went into the marketing, though, because there’s no point to any of it if it doesn’t sell.

There was a goal I established for the number of pre-orders I thought the book could get. It beat that number. I had ideas about who would buy the game. Those people responded. I had thoughts as to how it would be received, and that’s how it was received. So far, so good. I came out with a sense of confidence that this writing things is I thing I can do successfully, and that I have a general idea of what I’m talking about.

I learned what I didn’t know that I knew
Things arose that I hadn’t planned for, but I was able to roll with them. A lot of these learning were things that I was aware needed to be done, but I hadn’t put them on the project plan or written them on a to-do list. More of these things came out as potential customers asked me questions, and I realized I knew I should include things like page count in the promotional material, I just hadn’t. So perhaps this heading should have been “stuff I knew but didn’t think to write down until it came up.”

I validated what I knew I didn’t know
There were areas where I admittedly had no idea what I was doing. I’m still too embarrassed to admit to any of these. Because so far no one seems to have noticed, I’m not willing to draw attention to them. I knew that I was going to be teaching myself as I went along, that the results were probably going to be kludgey due to my lack of experience. I know that going forward I’ll get better with each book. I will continue to fake it until I make it.

I learned what I didn’t know
The main things that I didn’t know were how long things would take. Having never tackled a project of this size or scope before, I had no idea how much time to allocate for writing, research, editing, layout, and a dozen other little things. You don’t know how long a thing will take you until you do it. Now I know. Going forward, I can budget my time and lay out my project plan better.

I hammered out my priorities
Right after Starship Tyche came out, Chris Pramas wrote a blog post proposing a 24 hour rule. In short, when some creative type releases something, give them 24 hours to bask in the gory of having created something before you start tearing that thing apart. So far, I’ve gotten good feedback on the book. I haven’t gotten a lot of feedback, though. I wonder if people are just being polite and don’t want to hurt my feelings, but when have reviewers ever been worried about that? I started going down the rabbit hole of self-doubt, experiencing all of the negative emotions that all writers seem to go through, the plague of negative emotions and negative self-talk and the need for validation of your talent and your vision and your ideas and their execution.

Then I remembered that I made enough money to pay the rent. Did I get the warm fuzzies I craved? No. But where the rubber hits the road, I live to fight another day. Or more specifically, I get to have a roof over my head while I write the next one. My priority is to take everything above and make the next book even better, so that sales remain solid, and then, at the bottom of the heap, I can worry about my own fragile ego.

Posted in Geek, Work | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Brand New / Brand My Day

EHTy5rsSWe now return to regularly scheduled blog posts, already in progress.

As much as I enjoy blogging, I do periodically need to check my priorities and ask myself what value it has and where it fits into my life. Words that I lay down here are words I’m not putting toward a project that makes me money and pays the bills. At least, in theory. A cost/benefit analysis doesn’t offer any strong evidence that this website, or my presence on social media, helps me to attract new clients or sell more books. This is not unique. Chuck Wendig, a far better and more influential writer than I, has pointed out that he has far more social media followers than he does purchasers of his books.

On the advice of many, many people, I maintain a blog and social media presence so that when I do have something to promote it doesn’t feel as if all I do is hurl sales pitches. Yes, I do things to stay in touch with friends and colleagues and keep up on the news of the day as well, but I can do all of that via email and private messages and simply reading websites. Public interaction is public. It’s not only about the people you’re talking (typing) to, it’s about the lurkers watching you interact. In the 21st century, everything is a blend of marketing and performance art. That’s not an endorsement, merely an observation.

Many times in the past I’ve stated that I write blog posts as a warm-up exercise. Get the brain booted up and working, make the words come out, write about something I want to write about so I can then transition to the things I have to write about. I get something out of it. I get to wrap my head around things by writing about them (like, you know, the value of blogging). I get to at least attempt to make a personal connection with you, the reader.

That needs to be balanced with everything else. Do I need to be in touch every single day? Several times per day? Do I need to invent things to write about just to fill a blog schedule, simply to fill the blog schedule? I’m thinking not. If it’s not of value to me, it’s probably not of value to you. You don’t want to read filling. I don’t want to right filler. It wastes time for both of us. I respect you too much to do that to you.

Yes, the blog goes on. I’m just going to try to focus more on what brings some value to both of us. You and me. We’re in this together.

Posted in Geek, Life, Work | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Why Do You Write?

writing01Becoming a professional writer is about the stupidest and most dangerous thing you can do. When I decided to go down this long, dark path it was certainly my choice, but it was one made out of desperation as well as a desire to follow some creative muse. Yes, I have been able to sell bits of writing since 1992, and was a moderately successful blogger from 1996 to 2009, but that was a sideline. I still had a day job. Financially, I had no skin in the game. If I sucked at it, if I failed, big deal. The rent still got paid.

Except, after the economic downturn, I had no job. There were no jobs to get. I was overqualified to flip burgers, stock shelves, or run a cash register, and underqualified to work at most of the scientific or tech job that were available in Albuquerque at the time. There weren’t a lot of options. I took a look at what I knew how to do, and where I could be entrepreneurial and start my own business. Lacking either the resume or the con artistry to go into management consulting, I decided to try stringing words together for money.

The hours are long, but the pay sucks. That nonsense about getting to set your own hours? Partially true. When I worked in a call center, even as a manager, it was dictated to me when I could take a break, eat lunch, or even go to the bathroom. How often, and how long, I could be away from the desk. I now have the freedom to wander into the kitchen to get a snack, step outside for some fresh air to clear my head, or go pee whenever I want for however long I need. I also don’t get to punch out at the same time every day, or get the luxury of only working 40 or 50 hours a week, 5 days a week, and then pick up a guaranteed paycheck every-other Friday. Being a writer is like being a shark. If they’re not constantly swimming, sharks will drown. If you’re not constantly writing, the money’s not coming in.

Before she started graduate school, my wife Katie had a steady paycheck coming in to compensate for the highs and lows. Some weeks I make great money; other weeks I make next to nothing. It’s the nature of the game. Now that she’s in graduate school, I’m the sole breadwinner. We were both confident enough that I’d gotten good enough at this that I could support us. That’s terrifying. No pressure! Oh, and we’re living in a foreign country, too. I couldn’t get a day job now if there were any (unemployment in this city is at about 12%), because I don’t speak the language well enough. Writing is literally my only option.

No pressure.

That I love what I do is a definite blessing. That I’m good enough at it to be able to pay the rent and keep groceries on the table month after month is nothing short of a miracle. It’s nerve-wracking. Would I give it up for a straight day job? I wonder sometimes. I think if the right opportunity came up, I might. But I always feel as if I’m gaining momentum, and that I’d lose that if I stopped writing full-time. I constantly feel that I’m on the verge of a major breakthrough. I’m continually working on my craft, and working on improving the business and the marketing of things so that sales will continue to improve. I have hopes that over time this will not only provide us with a decent living, and enough ongoing royalties to have something of a nest egg should I ever want or need to retire.

Posted in World | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Ethics of #GamerGate

tyche-cover-smallThe whole #GamerGate thing has bugged me on a number of levels for a while now, and how can it not? Look, I think ethical journalism is a good thing, and I think taking the politics out of anything is a great idea, but even if this was ever about that, it isn’t any more. The moment people start making credible death threats in the name of your cause, you either A) immediately distance yourself from those fringe elements or B) change your hashtag and the name of your movement to distance them from you. Especially if your concern is about morals and values and making a distinction between right and wrong.

From what I’ve seen, that hasn’t happened. What I have seen are people either dismissively hand-waving away the threats, or accusing the women involved of making up or exaggerating threats against them in order to turn attention away from the alleged original point of ethics in gaming journalism. Really? Really? You’re going to ignore and deny and just power through so you can stay “on point?”

I’ve also seen a lot of disinformation thrown about that really makes the whole thing look more like a bad soap opera written by a tweenager than a change movement. It’s a conflict of interest that Zoe Quinn slept with Nathan Grayson even though Nathan Grayson never wrote a review of Zoe Quinn’s game but she cheated on her boyfriend a bunch of times which is relevant because Adam Baldwin was on Firefly or something something but it’s not misogyny even though it hinges on who and how many that woman slept with because DRM sucks and we should be able to make games that are just about white males killing women if we want to because creative liberty.

Let me share a clue on how you deal with this, if you truly want to demonstrate that misogyny isn’t your bag. First, you stop. You acknowledge what’s happening and say “Holy crap, that wasn’t what anyone intended at all, let’s stick a pin in our key issue and take some time to deal deal with this horrific issue first.” Then you’re free to return to the point you were originally making and still have some credibility that yes, ethics and fairness really is what your movement is all about.

But that’s not what happened, is it? No, no it’s not.

I’m also tired of the cry for diversity being characterized as “political correctness gone wild.” What in the blue hell are you even talking about? I didn’t add diversity to Starship Tyche in order to be “politically correct.” I am well aware that in the source material that it pays homage to, the majority of the protagonists were white men, and therefore the game isn’t “accurate” from that perspective. But I think that, being true to that source material, there would be more diversity and inclusiveness today. Instead of the Holy Trinity of White Guys — Kirk, Spock, and McCoy — my vision of the future has a white guy, an African-American guy, and a genderfluid alien. I have more women in the crew, more people of color in the crew, gay characters in the crew, a transgendered character in the crew, not as a marketing gimmick or to be able to brag about diversity, but because it fits perfectly with what the original source material was supposed to be about.

See, I actually live in a world where not all gamers are white males. I think that every gaming group I’ve been in over the past few years has had at least two women at the table. I’ve done a lot of gaming with people of color. I’ve done a lot of gaming with gay and transgendered people. Those are my friends. I’m not saying that you need to fill a quota at your table, either with who your players are or who the characters are. I’m saying that I want everyone to feel welcome to play my game, and sit at my table. Diversity and inclusiveness helps keep the hobby healthy and vibrant and interesting.

I keep hoping that #GamerGate will just go away, that the trolls will get tired and the idiots will find a new shiny object to obsess over. I don’t hold out a lot of hope that they’ll change their misogynistic ways, but I do hope that enough loud and angry cries of “NOT COOL BRO” will make them crawl back under their rocks and learn to keep their hateful opinions to themselves.

Posted in Geek | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Tabletop Roleplaying is Cheap Entertainment

rpg06The main reason I started playing roleplaying games, all those decades ago back in high school, was because my friend and I were broke and it didn’t cost anything. Once one of us bought a boxed set and, later, hardcover manuals, we had all we needed. Sure, as we each got some money we’d buy our own books and “modules”, but that was icing on the cake. Movies cost money. Model rocketry, miniature golf, and going to sports events cost money. Our imaginations were free.

Even before I started roleplaying, I loved comic books. But collecting them, or even reading a variety of titles on a regular basis, got expensive fast. 15 minutes of reading for 15 cents, 20 cents, a quarter added up quickly back then. 15 minutes of entertainment for $2.99 adds up even more quickly. That’s almost $12 an hour to read four comic books. Ugh. What I learned, though was that books were a better value. I could, and still can, get a used paperback novel for the price of a comic, and it would last at least a couple of hours. Even better, the library let me borrow books to read for free.

As an adult, “cheap” remains a strong reason why I’m still a roleplayer. Yes, I like supporting the industry and creators that I admire and whose work I enjoy. When I have money to spend on new games, I do. When I don’t, old games still work. I can still come up with new characters, new stories, new adventures for old games. It engages me creatively, and it costs nothing extra. If I never bought another game, game supplement, or accessory for a roleplaying game ever again, I’d still have more than enough to run adventures for the rest of my life.

Posted in Geek | Tagged | Leave a comment

Writing Loglines for Roleplaying Games

campaign design logoBy absolute coincidence, I’ve been simultaneously reading some of Robin Laws’ DramaSystem work, and Blake Snyder’s book on screenwriting, Save the Cat! (don’t judge me on that last one). Both talk about logline, the one-line description of a game or a film that allows the reader to immediate get what the things is about. I used to refer to the need to have “elevator speeches” for games, the short description that you can give to someone during a brief elevator ride between floors. Loglines are similar, but a lot shorter, and potentially a lot more powerful.

You might be asking why a game needs a logline. You already know what a roleplaying game is, and you already know what the setting is. The new edition of D&D is coming out, you don’t need to read a logline on that to understand what it is. If someone say they’re running a D&D campaign, how much else do you need to know? Well, I can think of three reasons.

The setting is not the campaign.

There are a lot of things that you can do inside a broad campaign world. Golarian, Eberron, the Forgotten Realms, and other popular settings are huge places. A campaign might take place above ground or below, deal primarily with certain types of monsters (undead, dragons, humanoids, etc.), center around specific political intrigues or villains. A logline will narrow that down. This can help both the gamemaster plan adventures and encounters, and help players create appropriate and effective characters.

Game designers need creative and marketing focus.

Much in the way gamemasters and players need to know what the game is about, so do game designers and the people they’d like to buy their games. As a designer, having a strong logline before you start will help you to know what you’re writing and not suffer from concept drift. You’ll also know how to tell other people about your game and, by extension, know who your potential audience is.

Players deserve clarity.

No matter whether you’re a designer writing a new game, setting, or adventure, or you’re a gamemaster trying to attract players, it’s not fair to put the responsibility for understanding what your game is about onto the players or potential customers. That’s not their job. If you want to be successful in what you’re doing with a game, you need to meet them more than half way. If they have to work too hard for it, they’ll move on to something that actually makes the effort to grab them.

 

Creating a Great Logline

A logline that should be a single sentence that describes what the campaign is all about. It should convey a mental picture of what’s going to happen, what sort of player characters are possible, and offer up a compelling hook or twist that makes it different from other games and campaigns. Some examples:

  • The City of Edpin has been besieged by orcs, and only the thieves’ guild can save the day.
  • The crew of the Starship Tyche explores the galaxy, making new discoveries and solving ages-old mysteries.
  • Earth is under attack by giant monsters, and only the Kaiju Patrol can stop them — using science!
  • A clan of evil vampires rules the city, but a cult of even more evil vampires threaten to destroy all they’ve built.

Try it out. Practice writing loglines for that campaign you’re planning to run, or that game you’re planning to write. Show them to people. Post them online and ask for feedback. Tweak them, refine them, and make them better. Once you’ve got a strong foundation, everything you create afterward will be a lot better.

 

Posted in Geek | Tagged | Leave a comment

Design Dials and Quality Results

campaign design logoThis is an idea that’s been bouncing around in my head ever since I first played the James Bond 007 roleplaying game back in the 1980s. It wasn’t the direct task resolution system, but the way it handled character attributes like appearance. I thought that it could be the whole system, somehow, from how good the character is at any given thing, how difficult a specific task is, to the quality result of the action the character performed. What I like most about it, though, is that the core idea scales to practically anything.

Using these Design Dials, as I’m calling them for now, you begin with the concept of average, baseline normal, the standard, whatever you define that to be. It doesn’t have to be a single number; it can be a range. If you’re using a scale from 1 to 10, 5-6 might be average, or 4-7, the midpoint, however wide you’d like it to be. On a scale o 1 to 20, 10-11 would be the midpoint, and you can expand that out to 8-13, 6-15, however broad you want your average range to be. This always gets defined first, because everything else is based off of it.

Best

Above Average

Average

Below Average

Worst

Next, you define the extremes. These are finite. You can’t give more than 100% or less than nothing. This is the single top number and the single bottom number. On a scale of 10 to 10, this is 1 and 10. On a scale of 1 to 20, this is 1 and 20.

Above and below average, then, at the numbers in between. If on a scale of 1 to 10 you set average as 4-7, then above average is 8-9 (10 is best) and 2-3 is below average (1 is worst).

This is actually a bell curve. The upper part of the curve is the average range. One standard deviation is above or below the curve. The best and worst are where the long tails kick in and basically flatline.

I have no idea how I’m going to use this yet. My far-too-complicated initial idea is to use d10s. Roll a number of dice equal to your ability rating – a minimum of 1 if you’re the worst, a maximum of 10 if you’re the best. You need to roll at or above the target number, say 5 for average. The total number of 5+ rolls added up is the quality result, so 5-6 successes is average, 1 is worst, 10 is best, etc. And yes, I see the similarities to the World of Darkness mechanics.

What I’d really like to do is work out a way to do this that’s more akin to the Fate ladder. I want the simplest rolls and results possible numerically; players and gamemasters can interpret what an average, above average, below average, and so on, success is.

 

Posted in Geek | Tagged | Leave a comment