Thursday, 20 December 2012

Too Busy Writing To Write?

Greetings Dear and Faithful Reader,

Well, it's been a while.  Months have come and gone since my last post.  I'm sure many of you even noticed.  I have been busy during my absence from these pages, perhaps not as busy as I should be, but I didn't get into the Author business to be responsible and work hard.  Which was a mistake as it turns out, but I digress.

As many of you are aware, last year I announced that I would be releasing the second Monday novel, titled Monday and the Apocalypse Engine, this December. I have good news and bad news on that front. The bad news first, I will not be releasing Monday and the Apocalypse Engine this December. It turns out writing a second novel had all sorts of new and different challenges than a first novel did.

Go figure.

The good news is I'm on track for a March 2013 release for Monday and the Counterfeit Corpse. That's right, the Apocalypse has been officially delayed. You read it here first, folks. But wait, I have still more good news.  Just to reward all of you for your patience, I present a pre-release of Chapter One of the forthcoming Monday and the Counterfeit Corpse.

This is a pre-release, so I don't promise there won't be some changes between this version and the final published one. I also don't promise there won't be some formatting issues, punctuation, grammar, and spelling errors. But that just makes this even more special, right?
All right then, with only slightly more preamble, I proudly present Chapter One of the forthcoming novel, Monday and the Counterfeit Corpse (Book Two in the Fifth World Series).


My name's Zachariah Monday, I'm a detective for hire, personal investigator, occasional body guard, professional pain-in-the-ass, busybody, snoop, and accidental do-gooder. Actually I'm a world-class do-gooder. It's just that I don't get paid for it, and not getting paid is something I rarely do on purpose. Fortunately, I do mostly get paid for all the rest, so I'm getting by just fine, thanks for asking.

Detective work comes in two basic flavors, boring and deadly. Fortunately for me, it changes back and forth pretty frequently so I usually don't get too bored. Or dead. The real payoff doesn't have much to do with money though. Most cases paid, but a few precious ones were actually fun. I was about to wrap up one of the best cases I have ever had the pleasure of solving. In fact, I was actually going so far as to kill time before I ended this one.

Okay, making the bad guys a little nervous and hopefully throwing them off their game was the official reason I was stalling. That and the fact that I was counting on one more player in my little production, but if I'm to be completely honest, it was only a little bit of the former and a whole lot of the latter. I had my whole game plan worked out, all my lines carefully rehearsed, and every possible contingency covered. My partner says I love showing off. I tell him he's crazy, but man is he going to be able to say 'I told you so' after this one.

I leaned against the mantlepiece at the head of the room. I had chosen my position and facial expression carefully. The key was to look relaxed and calm, but ready for anything. It wasn't an easy thing to do, but I think I pulled it off. I looked around the room at the collection of witnesses, suspects, victims, and innocent bystanders. I smiled, carefully showing just the right amount of teeth.

In the center of the room in an impressive high-backed chair sat Mrs. Belinda Stanhope-Crane, also known as the Widow Crane, also known as my client. Here's a hint for anyone who wants to go into the detective-for-hire business: always have a rich client if you can possibly swing it; it just makes everything easier. Mrs. Stanhope-Crane was richer than King Midas wishes he had been and she was a great client. She had hired me to find out who killed her husband Malcolm Howard – her latest husband that is. Mrs. Stanhope-Crane had outlived a half-dozen husbands in her time. The deceased spouse in question was half his wife's age, at the time of death two weeks ago.

I had read about the murder in the papers before she came to me with the case. It was front-page stuff, “Scandalous marriage ends in bloody murder.” All sorts of tawdry allegations were flying. Popular gossip had it that hubby Howard had been killed by criminals plotting to steal all of his wife's money. And of course, everyone suspected that Howard had been in on it. What with his history as a convicted felon. It had all the makings of a first-rate movie of the week and I was smack dab in the middle of it all. It doesn't get much better than this in the detective-for-hire business. 
I asked Belinda (she insisted that I call her Belinda) if she wanted me to prove her husband innocent or if she wanted me to solve the crime. Her answer had surprised me. She said neither; she only wanted justice to be done. I may just have fallen a tiny bit in love with Belinda right then and there. Plus she offered to pay me nearly double my usual rate.

Two people sat on the couch to her left, Nate Crane the oldest son from her first marriage and heir to the bulk of the Stanhope-Crane fortune – now that Howard was dead, anyway. To Nate's left was Margaret Stanhope-O'Shaughnessy, my client's sister. For a while Maggie O'Shaughnessy had been my primary suspect, but I knew better now. I hadn't revealed this publicly yet; it was better if the real bad guy didn't suspect what I didn't suspect until it was too late. I reached into my back pocket and pulled out my trusty notebook. It's times like this that I'm really glad I take copious notes. Also, it is easier to ignore people nonchalantly when you have an excuse not to look at them. I checked my notes and ignored up a storm.

Sitting across from those three and staring daggers at everyone was Brigid Howard, a woman who had emerged after the murder and alternately claimed to be Malcolm Howard's sister, secret wife, and criminal partner at various points in my investigation. She had also tried to seduce me, or possibly kill me. I'm still not sure which. I had her pegged now. She was just a gold-digger with a talent for lies. Her real name was Mildred Drood. She wasn't directly related to the case at all, but she sure had confused me for a while.

Standing against the back wall was the entire serving staff, the chauffeur, three maids, a stable master, a cook, and a butler. Everyone in the room was human except for the butler. He was a goblinblood, which is to say that he was of mixed human and goblin ancestry. Accordingly, he was nearly an inch shorter than the next shortest person in the room, who was a five foot, two inch maid named Ginny. I didn't remember Ginny's last name, but I can't be expected to remember everything, can I? I flipped several pages back in my notes. Ginny's last name was Prescott. 
The goblinblood butler made up in width what he lacked in height; he easily weighed three hundred pounds and it looked to be entirely muscle. His traditional butler's uniform did little to hide his powerful physique. Not for the first time I thought about being on the business end of those sledgehammer fists and, like every other time, I decided that I didn't want to have that particular experience. He smiled at me, revealing huge slabs of teeth like pearly white tombstones.

Full-blooded goblins are like snowflakes – or they would be if snowflakes could bench-press motorcycles before a light lunch and shrug off injuries that would kill me three times over. What I meant by the snowflake thing was that no two goblins look very much alike. They were often some shade of green and they were usually about 4 or 5 feet tall. After that things got more complicated. Some goblins are hairless and scaly. Some goblins have great big pointy ears. A lot of them have long and lanky heavily-muscled limbs. But some of them didn’t have any of those qualities. 
Scientists have theories on why goblins vary so widely from one to another. Wizards have theories as well. Maybe the most ancient and learned members of the goblin race know the answers. Most of the goblins that I know really didn’t care about the reasons behind why they were the way they were. Goblins are like that.

Mixed-race goblins, like the butler against the wall, were an even bigger bag of complicated. Some of them could pass for human if they wore baggy clothing, others – like the butler – could nearly pass for goblin. His head was wide and hairless and covered with tiny green scales, his ears were big and pointy and rose inches above either side of his head. And did I mention the teeth? Because the teeth looked like they could easily grind me into paste and I like to mention things like that.

I turned to a blank page in my notebook and started sketching teeth. Again, this wasn't relevant to the case in any way, but I was stalling for time, after all. I snuck a quick glance around the room again. If my last invitee didn't show up soon, someone's temper was going to blow and then things would get harder.

“Blast it, Monday!” exclaimed Nate Crane as he burst up from the couch. “How long are you going to make us sit around here? You promised us answers!”

I sighed. Why am I always right when I least want to be?

“Mr. Crane,” I said in a soothing voice. “If you'll just be patient for a few more minutes, I'll be able to explain everything.”

Just then the door banged open and an enormous man stormed into the room. He was well over six feet tall and hugely overweight. His great bald dome of a head gleamed brightly in the large room's witchlamps and a great shaggy sprawl of red beard covered the lower half of his face and spilled down his chest. He wore a New Jerusalem Police Department badge on his shirt and a tie that defied all taste and decorum.

“Lt. Mandrake!” I greeted him warmly, as an old friend deserves. “I'm so glad you could make it. I was just telling Mr. Crane here that you were on your way.”

“Fuck you, Monday,” Mandrake growled. “You asked me to be here and I'm here. Show me what you want me to see, but remember that you owe me big time for this. I don't make house calls.”

I cleared my throat ostentatiously and straightened my tie, Jasper Mandrake was a real charmer, but he was also the closest thing New Jerusalem had to an honest cop. Mandrake cared and that was worth a whole lot in my book. Also with the piles of cash that Belinda was paying me, I could afford Mandrake’s bribes, which was worth even more. Justice indeed, Mrs. Stanhope-Crane, justice indeed.

“Now that we're all assembled,” I said in my best public speaking voice. “Let's begin. As you all know, Mrs. Stanhope-Crane hired me to determine who was behind the murder of her husband, Malcolm Howard, and also why he was murdered. I have asked you all to be here today because I have the answers to those questions and more.”

I paused and let my gaze travel slowly across the large room, resting my eyes briefly on each of the assembled. Some of them looked me in the eyes, but others glanced away. Nervously? Shyly? Guiltily? It was hard to say for certain. I let the moment linger. The butler shifted slightly, moving into a stance that would allow him to move quickly, or possibly start a fight. I noted that and moved on.

“Mrs. St – I'm sorry – Belinda,” I began in what I hoped was a comforting tone of voice. “Your husband was not involved in the scheme to steal all your money. All of the evidence that I've found shows nothing but honest motivations. I believe that your husband truly loved you and wanted to spend the rest of your lives together. I am truly sorry.”

I paced back and forth a little bit before going on, partly because it makes me look thoughtful, but also because it provided a nice dramatic pause.

“Malcolm wasn't killed by your sister or your son,” I continued. “In fact, no member of your family was involved in the crime at all. The true killer planted all of that evidence to throw investigators off the track. And it worked, at least for a little while.”

“The handgun in Nathan's room?” asked Margaret Stanhope-O'Shaughnessy.

“The plans to the family safe in Margaret's room?” asked Nathan Crane simultaneously.

“All put there by the true killer,” I assured them both. “To set you against each other and to stall for time. Much like I've been doing for some time now. Jasper, have your men found it yet?”

“Of course they have,” Lt. Mandrake replied testily. “What do you think took me so long?”

“All right then,” I smiled. “Bring it in, please.”

“Bring it in!” bawled Mandrake in a huge ear-splitting voice.

The door opened once again and a uniformed police officer came in carrying a two-foot tall statuette of a crying woman. It was nicely sculpted, it looked pretty valuable. It was also the motive for Malcolm Howard's murder.

“The Weeping Lady?” asked Belinda Stanhope-Crane in disbelief. “What about it?”

“Not the Weeping Lady,” I replied. “This is a counterfeit. In fact, it's one of nearly a dozen counterfeits which have been moving through New Jerusalem for the last month.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the butler edging slowly backwards. Unless I missed my guess – and I didn't – he was about to make his move. So it was time for me to make mine.

“Belinda,” I said. “A trusted member of your staff has betrayed you, stolen from you, and most tragic of all, when your husband discovered their crimes, committed cold-blooded murder.”

“But who?” cried Belinda. “Who did it?”

“Perdition take you all! I'm not going back to jail,” snarled a voice.

Twelve sets of eyes swept the room, looking for the source of the snarl. It was the cook and he had produced a handgun from somewhere and he was pointing it right at Belinda Stanhope-Crane. Both Lt. Mandrake and the uniformed officer were too far away to do anything, I was even further away and if I moved at all the crooked cook would surely shoot. Fortunately, I had planned ahead and had a shill in the crowd.

From behind the cook and well out of his field of view, a massive sledgehammer of a fist crashed into his head. The gun dropped from his suddenly slackened fist and clunked to the floor loudly, followed by the cook's unconscious body a moment later. I definitely never wanted to be on the business end of those enormous mitts.

“I got him, Boss,” said the butler who wasn't a butler. His voice was so deep I could feel it in my chest, no fully human throat would ever produce a voice like that.

“Good job, Baxter,” I replied.

Baxter Kline was my partner. Technically he was my employee, but that only went so far as me paying him. He was a great partner and he added a lot of value to the firm. When it came to actually following orders, he wasn't so great. But that's okay as he frequently tells me that I'm not so great as a boss either. We had infiltrated Baxter into the household a few weeks ago and today it had paid off.

“Wait,” began Nathan Crane. “The butler is working for you?”

“Yep,” I replied with a grin. “He's my partner, Baxter Kline.”

“Thank goodness!” exclaimed Belinda. “He was an awful butler. When all of this was over, I was going to have to let him go.”

Baxter actually looked contrite. “Sorry Ma'am. I was so busy running Zack's errands, I barely had any time for you at all.”

“Lt. Mandrake,” I called. “If you and your associate would be so kind as to drag the cook away in manacles I can get back to explaining what exactly has been going on here for the last three weeks.”

“I ain't your errand boy, Monday,” Mandrake growled, a dangerous edge to his voice. “But seein' as this jerkhole pulled a deadly weapon on an upstanding citizen, I guess it's my civic duty to haul him in.”

Mandrake turned towards the uniform and jerked a thumb towards the groaning cook, “Kovacks? Haul the jerkhole in.”

“Yes sir!” Kovacks replied smartly before busying himself with the aforementioned task.

Right about then the room exploded into a dozen different voices asking a hundred different questions. I flipped my notebook open and smiled.

“Let me start at the beginning,” I said.

About an hour later everyone was finally satisfied with my answers, or at the very least they were as satisfied as they were ever likely to get. Mrs. Stanhope-Crane and I shook hands, she gave me a fat bonus check – which I had totally earned, thank you very much, and we said our good-byes. Lt. Mandrake and Officer Kovacks had long since left with their collar, and everyone else had something important or at least distracting that needed doing. 
Baxter and I left together in a shared cab. Sure we had made a good profit on this case, but there was no sense in throwing away perfectly good money. We rode in silence for a time while I deconstructed recent events. I had expected things to go worse, frankly. The cook was a career criminal; he had been part of an underground fighting ring for a while. I had expected him to give Bax a run for his money in the thug department. Don't get me wrong, Baxter Kline is a damn fine thug, a true gentleman, and quite possibly the heir to the Goblin Throne. 

I realized Baxter was staring at me. 
“What?” I asked.

“Why'd you lie to her?” he rumbled.

“I didn't!” I protested.

“Howard the hubby was in it up to his neck and you know it!” Baxter rumbled.

“At the beginning, sure!” I replied easily. “But he really did fall in love with Belinda and his partner killed him for it. Can you tell me what purpose would be served by hurting her with a meaningless truth?”

“You could argue that it would be doing the job she paid us to do,” Baxter suggested.

“She paid us for justice,” I said. “Justice is exactly what she got. It's bad enough she lost her husband. I'm not going to be the one to take away his memory as well.”

“Boss, you are even more of a romantic sap than you are unabashed hambone.” Baxter grumbled, but his smile softened the words and made a lie of the grumble.

“I thought I did quite well in there,” I observed, changing the subject to an area in which I was more comfortable.

“Yeah, yeah,” Baxter admitted. “You did just fine.”

“Ahem,” I said, holding out my hand.

Baxter glowered at me, but he shoved one of his massive paws into a jacket pocket and pulled out a money clip. He peeled off a twenty and laid it in my hand. I made a show of examining it, holding it up to the light to look at the paper and such.

“I didn't actually think you'd blow it, Boss,” Baxter rumbled. “I just think you've gotten too reliant on your pocket watch lately, and with it in the shop for repairs....”

“I'm more than my tools,” I sniffed in a fair approximation of Nathan Crane's voice.

As much as I refused to admit it, Baxter had a point. My charmed pocket watch was a powerful tool, and it helped me out quite a lot. A few seconds warning right before any physical danger threatened my person was a pretty handy thing to have around. I patted the jacket pocket I usually kept the thing in to remind myself that it wasn't there. I was operating without a net until the danger charm got out of the shop. And that was okay, sometimes it was good to leave the safety nets behind.

“This was a damn good case,” I said. “And the perfect end to a perfect day.”

“Not quite,” Baxter said. “We still don't have any idea what's going on with the counterfeit statuette. Why are they smuggling art into the city? And where is it coming from? We don't know any of that stuff.”

“True,” I agreed. “But none of that stuff is our problem. It's Jasper's job not ours, not until someone pays us to do it.”

Baxter revealed a flask from within the folds of his trench coat. 

“I'll drink to that,” Baxter said.

And that is exactly what we did.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Winning the Internet

I like to play with the Internet and I suspect you do as well, oh Faithful Reader. I watch for interesting things and I forward them along to amuse, enlighten, and inform my friends, family, and followers. If I'm really good and very lucky, I'll do all of it to all of them at the same time.

I aspire to Internet greatness. I want a Google Footprint that can be seen from Outer Space. I want Wil Wheaton to ask me for tips on how to get more followers, I want George Takei to ask me to pass a funny picture along for him. I want to crash web servers faster than Neil Gaiman. I want to be in videos with Nathan Fillion and Felicia Day (and who doesn't?). Let's face it, like all the rest of you, I want to win the Internet.

I think everybody who wastes too much spends a lot of time on the Internet has their own way of winning. Let's face it, there are good Internet days and bad ones. For me, the good ones include laughing at something clever that my friends did or saw (or in some cases wrote or invented), contributing an idea or two here and there, and maybe getting a new friend, follower, groupie, or tweep.

I have my little strategies, I will set aside time in my busy day (Busy doing what, you ask? Well, Girl Genius isn't going to read itself after all, and Super Hero Squad Online has a hold on me that neither love nor money can break) to surf for good material to share. I am very lucky to have a wide and varied group of online friends and correspondents so my reach is long and my surfboard is mighty.  Also I cheat by checking out sites like Neatorama. Incidentally, Neatorama is where a friend of mine recently found this little gem of a Gotye Filk, The Star Wars That I Used to Know.

As a savvy Internet user; when a friend (or even the occasional fan) passes me an interesting bit of news, trivia, information, or political/social commentary, I spend a few minutes tracking down another source for corroboration. It's embarrassing to pass along a hoax or an outright lie. I'm not saying I haven't done it. In fact, posterity will show some real howlers of mine. I'm saying I try not to do it. A quick side trip to Snopes or Wikipedia has saved me many a #webfail. Sometimes I so desperately want that Onion article to be true. Alas, they have always been just a joke. So far.

Next I check for coverage. Maybe someone else in one of my social circles has already posted this and I can re-share their post.  A side benefit of re-sharing something from a friend is giving them credit. If I can help someone win their own Internet, a winner is I. Besides, it's fun to come up with four or five different synonyms for shared. I stole this from Bob, who ganked it from Jane, who bogarted it from Mabel, who can reliably claim to have liberated it from Todd in a Leverage/Sneakers style high tech caper. Incidentally, on precisely two occasions I have posted a thing before the social media big fish found it and blew me out of the water. I take my celebrity where I can find it. Oh, and I've learned the hard way that if George Takei posts it, that $#!7 is covered.

It's not all work, though. Believe it or not, you can play around a lot on the Internet too. And I'm not just talking about games either. I like to play with the Internet itself. I'm hardcore that way. (And yes, that is probably the only way that I'm hardcore.)

One of my favorite Internet games is Media Racing. I post some allegedly juicy tidbit on Facebook, Google+, and Twitter at the same time and then bask in the glow of my own ego as I see which outlet reposts, shares, +1's, and likes it fastest. So far Facebook is the most frequent winner, but I think that's been established elsewhere, and besides, it's fun just to watch them run.

I also like to watch the sales on my various personal creations. I've got an e-book that sells irregularly through numerous channels and I have an interactive novel/game thingee for both iPhones and Androids. I like to watch them race too, especially because races where you make actual money are even more fun. It's like watching people fill out online invitations to my birthday party, which by the way always makes me feel simultaneously popular and obsessive-compulsive. And for those who are curious, right now Verdigris for the Android is winning, but I still love all my literary children equally.

Speaking of Verdigris, I really get a kick out of corresponding with folks who have played it and asking them which choices they made and why. One of the best parts about role playing games is getting live feedback from the players, and Verdigris is my chance to play a role playing game with everyone who ever reads it. Or should that be everyone who plays it? I'm never sure what verb one uses to describe the experience of an interactive novel. Read this game? Play this story?

But I digress.  Where was I? Oh yes, how I play the Internet... This very blog is my favoritest favorite way to play the Internet. It is here that I speak directly to you, oh Faithful Reader. Getting the occasional comment or even discussion going here make me feel like a Social Media creator and not just a pass through. So even though my output here is less frequent than I would prefer (I'm still pretty darn lazy and easily distracted ... mostly by the Internet, but I think I'm digressing again) I'm still here and I'm still trying to win the Internet.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

It's not a rip off, it's an homage

So when I'm writing games, I rip other people's stories off a lot. But it's for the best, trust me.

Maybe I can't write like Shakespeare, but he ripped off most of his best ideas, and I can certainly follow in those footsteps.

To be honest, I mostly steal concepts, ideas, character archetypes, and themes. I recombine them, recycle them, and re-use them. I'm an ecologically-aware writer, if there's ever a world-wide idea shortage, I will be on the forefront of the idea recycling movement!

You only have so much time to tell a story and you have to share it with the players and what they want to do. If I need to spend a lot of time establishing a particular character, or society, or bit of technology, that's basically just me sitting at one end of the table narrating to my players. It's not really interactive and unless I'm a really good storyteller, it's kind of boring. Heck, sometimes even I get bored of doing all the talking. Every word I can avoid saying is another word my players can jam in edgewise. Believe me that's a good thing.

Ripping off somebody else's idea - especially a well-known idea that is shared by most, if not all of my players - saves a lot of time. For example, if I base a society on Imperial Rome and drop a few not-so-subtle hints about it, all of my players have a big leg up on the story I'm telling and they can then cooperate by contributing their own bits if they choose to. If I want to introduce a character with crazy-advanced technology and I have them whip out what is obviously a sonic screwdriver, the players are likely to recognize it, even if their characters don't. It's a short cut and it puts everyone on more or less the same page. Now I can move the story along and give my players some well-deserved spotlight time.

This is even more useful in a one-shot game. When I'm writing a character sheet for a 4 hour live action game, I like to keep it under six pages, including abilities and contact list (the ever-popular 'Who You Knows'). That doesn't leave an awful lot of room. If I could make the sheets shorter, I would. Most people won't memorize much more than two pages, so every page I go longer is that many more times a player needs to whip out his character sheet and bring the game to a screeching halt while they 'search their memories.' I like to keep things moving and minimize character sheet checking, so I keep the sheets short.

The best method I've found for having well-rounded and fleshed-out characters that can be written in under six pages is stealing referencing other people's ideas. I don't always copy a character outright (but when I do, I do it like an internet meme) but if I can get the basic concept across in a paragraph or two instead of a page or two, that's a big space saver. How many pages would it take me to describe Darth Vader or Wolverine? Answer: a whole lot. But I can convey to a player that a character is 'just like' Vader or Wolverine in less than a page. Plus it gives them some potential ideas on how to portray the character and what his or her motivations might be. Even better, if the player does choose to portray the character as strongly reminiscent of the inspiration, the players who interact with the character will also benefit from the reference.  Of course, this brings up the question of player knowledge versus character knowledge, but that's a subject for another blog.  Short answer, I tend towards revealing as much as possible to the player in the hopes that it will inform their portrayal of the character and I leave 'firewalling' to the player. Besides, this incarnation of the character is very likely to have an entirely different set of dark secrets to discover so knowing an 'alternate universe' version of the character isn't as much of a leg up as one might imagine.

Characters aren't and shouldn't be static things. Even a concept that began as a point-for-point rip off homage to another character can and should evolve and grow beyond its origins. Campaigns are excellent for that sort of thing. But starting off with a good point of reference and a well-known media touchstone is a great start. One of the best characters I've ever seen started off as a fairly blatant clone of Battlestar Galactica's Starbuck (the modern one). The character went through a lot of changes, situations and challenges and ended her run three years later as a fully-realized, unique and compelling character that would have graced any series she appeared in. Would the character have gone as far without literary shoulders to stand on? Maybe, maybe not, but it worked and ripping off things that worked is what this blog post is all about.

Taking other people's characters and putting them into new and different situations is nothing new, fan fiction has been doing it for decades, taking other people's ideas and expanding on them or re-combining them in new and different ways isn't new either, it's called 'genre.' But using it as a short cut or place holder for character development is a powerful application for both players and game masters of tabletop and live action games.

There are other ways to go, of course. I've gotten more than my fair share of twenty page character sheets, I've seen a lot of bold and unique characters, in fact some of the best players, writers, and game masters insist on creating entirely new and original characters every time. Some situations call for originality and others call for a reference.  Keep a large toolbox and steal use the right tool for the right job.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Freedom of Choice and Other RPG Disasters

If I were asked to list the most important quality of a role playing game I might not think of the freedom to make your own choices right away, but I sure as heck would get to it somewhere in the top 10. Choice is an integral part of role playing and is implicit in nearly every interaction a player has with the game master. The GM tells you much of what you see, hear, smell, and so forth and follows up with the single most common (and most important) question: "What do you do?"

Often there isn't much real choice available. Do you hit the orc with your sword or do you shoot an arrow at him with your longbow? Do you hurl mystic fire or mystic ice at the troll? "Fire, duh. Trolls regenerate ice damage." But either way, it's a tactical decision more than an actual choice. In this context, any choice is constrained and generally 'safe.' Which is to say, it is unlikely to derail the game master's plans for the evening. Nor is it going to seriously endanger your character's existence or the party's overall success... At least not any more than any other roll of the polyhedral.

But there are other kinds of choices. Do we kick in the front door of the dungeon or sneak around and try to find a back way? Sometimes these choices don't have a huge effect, if the dungeon already features a back way in on the map, the GM is pretty well-prepared. Likewise, everything is peachy if it absolutely doesn't have a back door. But there are occasions where it can cause problems. What if there is a back way in, but the GM had counted on the players learning something key in the first few rooms? Some bit of plot that either relates to the larger story or a key secret that will allow them to defeat the hideous undead lord they are destined to meet at the very bottom of the dungeon? Now the GM has to scramble. Is there a way to duplicate that important bit elsewhere? Should the GM utter that infamous phrase, "No. You can't do that?" Should the GM let the dice fall where they may and allow the possibility for players to make mistakes, or even fail entirely because of what seemed like a reasonable choice at the time?

There's no single right or wrong answer to these questions. Every group can find its own way through these thorny issues. But if the players and the GM never discuss these things, no decision will be made consciously. Communication is hugely important. As a GM, I don't want my players to be frustrated because they failed due to a circumstance beyond their control. At the same time, I'm proud of my adventures, my stories, and my schmaltzy jokes. I want the players to see as much of my grand tapestry as possible. I want as much of the hard work I put into the game to show as possible. Selfish? Heck, yeah, I am.

In my experience, players tend to be very risk-averse in a game. They always want the maximum return for the minimum risk. And they plain hate to lose, let alone suffer the ignominy of character death. Losing happens and so does character death, but players will almost always move heaven, earth, and various elemental planes to avoid it. This leads to a lot of careful planning whenever the players think their characters are heading into a dangerous situation. Which is pretty much all of the time in an adventure game, right? So that means a lot of time is going to be spent on things that would never be explored in a novel, movie, or comic book.

There's a reason why editors cut that stuff out or boil it down to a quick-cut montage set to 80's music: it's boring. It isn't any less boring when it's hashed out at the table. Even worse, it can lead to players arguing with each other - there's nothing wrong with characters arguing with each other - but I hate it when my friends fight for real. I think these arguments are based on the fear that there is a Right Decision and a Wrong Decision. And if the players make the Wrong Decision, the GM will Punish Them with loss or even death. Did I mention that most players hate losing and/or dying?

The other night I ran a game of D&D 4th Edition and I wanted the players to have a real say in where the campaign went. We were at a turning point and the plan would play a large part in determining the stories we tell together for the rest of the campaign.  So it was an important choice and it was a wide-open free choice. I literally didn't care which way the game went, because I hadn't written it yet. In this case, there was no wrong choice. I had nothing prepared that would be wasted if the players never saw it. I had no serious preconception of how the campaign would play out. Whatever decision the group came to was pretty much by definition the Right Decision.

But neither the players nor their characters knew any of that. And I think that's a good thing, but it has consequences. In this case, the consequence was the conversation spinning down into frustration and discord. The decision was SO IMPORTANT that the players didn't dare make the wrong choice. In game disagreements were on the verge of becoming real life frustrations and tempers were fraying.

So I stepped out from behind the GM screen (metaphorically-speaking, I didn't actually get out of my chair) and told them pretty much everything I just wrote down in this here blog post. There was a sort of a pause while it all sunk in and then everyone immediately agreed on the option that sounded like the most enjoyable, exciting, and adventurous choice. The entire argument was over in less than a minute and everyone seemed pretty happy with the conclusion.

Except me.

Anytime I have to break the fourth wall and explain something directly to the players, I remind them all that this is "only a game." Everyone breaks character and the whole fantasy world that we're all working (playing) so hard to create gets a little less vibrant and feels a little less real. We never did get back into character that night. The conversation rapidly turned to Marvel's The Avengers and other non-game matters. I totaled up the experience points we had racked up for the evening, did all the necessary accounting, and the game wrapped on an up-note.

But I think I could have done better.  I'm just not sure how. There's a certain amount of deception that any role-playing game must involve. There are some fights the characters are simply never going to lose - almost all of them, in fact. But I want the players to feel on some level that they could always lose. That's what makes winning so cool. To use a movie analogy, sometimes the choice is between cutting the red versus the green wire in a bomb. Making the Wrong Choice is bad. But sometimes the choice is who to date. That's a pretty big choice, but from the pool of legitimate candidates, there may not actually be a wrong choice, just different choices. If we are always frank and honest and open about everything, a lot of dramatic tension goes right out the window, never to return. But if we aren't all on the same page about which decisions are important but safe, which ones are important and risky, and which ones are just color text ... well, that's just no fun at all, is it?

I'm still working on it. Has your table hit on this problem? How'd you deal with it? I'd love to hear from game masters and players alike.

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012
Chelmsford, MA

Friday, 23 March 2012

Nuts and Bolts

With the recent (and long-awaited) release of Verdigris for the Droid platform I thought this would be a nice time to talk about my approach to writing multiple choice interactive fiction in general and Verdigris in specific. I grew up on the Choose Your Own Adventure game books as well as great computer games like Zork and its many cousins and descendents.

These games were and are great fun and I cannot recommend them too highly. Actually that's not quite true, if I were to say that playing interactive fiction games would forever end the threat of nuclear war in our lifetimes, I would be recommending them too highly. But short of that, they are pretty dang nifty. The thrill of interactive fiction (hereafter occasionally referred to as IF to save space and delay the inevitable onset of carpal tunnel) is much the same as that of role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and all of its cousins and venerable descendents: Stepping outside of your own head and your own life, creating an alter ego and having adventures, solving mysteries and just generally dealing with problems that aren't the same old mundane ones you have to deal with in Real Life. As most people who have met me know, I am no great fan of Real Life.

The problem with a lot of interactive fiction games is that they are mostly constructed out of frustration. Many IF games require you to learn the language and structure of each game. That takes time and can be painful and - wait for it - frustrating. Anyone who has played an IF game has had screaming arguments with their computer that go something like this:

Computer says: You see an interesting umbrella, you should pick it up
Player types: Pick up umbrella
Computer replies: I don't see an umbrella here
Player types: Pick up parasol
Computer replies: I don't see a parasol here
Player types: Look around
Computer replies: You see an interesting umbrella, you should pick it up
Player types: Pick up the freaking umbrella!!!!!
Computer replies: There's no need to get upset here, I'm just doing my job. Did you want to pick up the umbrella?
Player types: Yes!
Computer replies: I don't understand what you mean.

At this point, Player often throws his computer through a convenient window. But once you get the hang of each program's specific quirks and requirements they're a lot of fun. Trust me here. But what Team Verdigris wanted to do was create a vibrant interactive world with lots of real choices and real consequences that was as close to frustration-free as we could manage. Unfortunately, that meant front-loading all the frustration onto ourselves. We used a structure that allows the players to choose whatever missions they want in pretty much any order they choose, and because it's all multiple choice, there was no need to learn the program's idiosyncratic language.

The consequence of this choice was what we began calling zombie chips. Small spoiler here: the consequences of your choices in the game can lead to the deaths of some of the characters you interact with. The problem with this is that some players will move forward in the game with a particular character being alive and others with that same character being dead. This was a ticklish logic problem that led to a bit of a walking dead problem, or in some cases, a bit of a lying down living problem. It's hard to keep a good character down in Verdigris, even when they're dead.

The other problem we had was the vanishing button conundrum. Many of the missions in Verdigris feature several different investigative paths that all lead to the same conclusion (more or less, your choices matter) but some require that the player follow every lead to piece together all the information. For these, we created structure that lets the player follow the leads in any order they choose, mostly because it's more fun that way. When each track was completed, the player is sent back to a central screen where they report back and then choose the next track. In theory, the button that leads to the tracks they've already completed will no longer appear. This is all well and good, but sometimes it led to a player getting back to a screen that had no buttons at all. There was literally no way out other then jumping around using the map mechanic or actually restarting your game. This may be my first game, but I rapidly concluded that this was a design flaw.

Tracking down the logic errors that causes these vanishing button dead ends was a mystery as challenging as any in the actual game. Some of these central screens have over 60 discrete code elements and figuring out which one is buggy ... well Dear Reader, it ain't easy. Team Verdigris has spent hundreds (and hundreds, and hundreds) of hours playing the heck of the game trying to find and fix all of these pesky problems. Did we get them all? Probably not. Will we fix them when players find them? Absolutely. Will it be easy? That would be a big nope. Is it worth it? I said is it worth it? Hello? Is this thing on? Anybody? Is it worth the late nights, the early mornings, the lonely SOs, and the crushing poverty?


Only you, Dear Reader can answer that question for us. Play Verdigris and let us know. That is all.

March 23, 2012
Chelmsford, MA

Saturday, 25 February 2012

But Seriously, Folks...

I've got something serious to talk about.

I know, I know ... serious is pretty far outside my wheelhouse. I promise to be relatively brief. Please bear with me. Thanks.

This week I made the decision to enter the e-book of Monday and the Murdered Man into Amazon's Kindle Select Program. This is a pretty exciting program that lets Amazon Prime members borrow my book for free, it also offers me various promotional and publicity support options (which is plenty exciting for me at least). But there are downsides. During the promotional period, Monday and the Murdered Man, the e-book will be available exclusively from Amazon.

I am philosophically opposed to exclusive deals. I think they're bad for industry in general. Exclusivity did incalculable damage to the comic book industry (which as you might well know is near and dear to my heart). Going back a few decades it wasn't so hot for the Betamax either.

So, all in all, this decision is out of character at best and downright hypocritical at worst. That being said, I thought I'd share some of my thought process on the matter. It mostly comes down to voice and reach. I'm an opinionated fellow and I've got a lot to say. I'm also impatient and I'd rather not wait 10 years to become an overnight success if I can avoid it. Marketing is a big part of my plan. Infinite Marketing in Infinite Diversion (Roddenberry forgive me) is my basic strategy. I'm going around to conventions and book clubs and book stores, and libraries and anything else I can think of. I'm posting on Facebook, tweeting on Twitter and +1-ing on Google +. If people want to listen to me talk, I will go forth and talk to them.

At first blush this line of thinking should fly in the face of going exclusive. You can probably see why this whole mess is giving me a brain ache. The thing is, I know I can't do everything all at once. I can only speak in one venue at a time and I'm comfortable with that (although if anyone has any ideas on how to get around that limitation, I'm willing to listen).

By focusing for a while on Amazon sales exclusively I am hoping to get more exposure in the largest e-book arena, hopefully more exposure will get more people reading and listening, more people reading and listening hopefully gives me a chance to share my thoughts, ideas, and philosophies about How Things Should Be (tm and patent pending) with a wider audience. Enlightened self interest for the win? Hopefully.

In the eternal battle between pure artistic integrity and becoming a shameless sell-out, I definitely lean towards the shameful. I rely on my friends, editors and fans to tell me if I go too far. I figure that as long as I'm producing a quality product, it's my fiduciary duty to sell it as well as I know how. And let's be honest with each other, shall we? I could use some more money off this project. My day job is running a game store, which is only slightly more profitable than writing novels (which is only slightly more profitable than wishing real hard for it to rain zinc).

So will my nefarious plans for financial solvency and minor celebrity status succeed? That's an excellent question and one that I am keenly interested in. Stick around and we'll find out together. In the meantime, I have a lot of writing to do.

Thanks for listening and I'll try to be funnier next time.

February 25th, 2012
Chelmsford, MA

Saturday, 18 February 2012

It's all part of The Process

Sometimes it is difficult for the untrained eye to spot the difference between a working writer and a lazy slacker. I'll admit that there are certain similarities, so I'm all too willing to forgive the error. I have a lot of conversations that go a lot like this:

Her: What are you doing?
Me: Writing.
Her: You're playing Facebook games.
Me: It's all part of The Process.
Her: Are you sure?
Me: I'm sure.

Time passes.

Her: What are you doing now?
Me: Writing.
Her: You're watching Farscape!
Me: If you already knew what I was doing why did you bother to ask?

More time passes.

Me: Before you ask, yes I'm writing.
Her: You're getting drunk.
Me: It's part of The Process.
Her: Are you sure?
Me: It is crazy, how sure I am!

So there it is.

Can you, Dear Reader, spot the differences? No? To be honest ... some days, neither can I. There's definitely something to be said for keeping the conscious mind occupied while letting the 'boys in the basement' (to pilfer a line from Stephen King) do their work. I personally find that some level of distraction and refocusing is absolutely necessary to do creative work. I hear that Neil Gaiman likes to go for long drives. Jennifer Pelland does belly dancing (and she does it quite well.) And it is crazy how many authors like to get blasted out of their minds on the controlled substance of their choice.

But on the other side of the keyboard, there are countless authors who fritter away their days goofing off, waiting for the muse who never comes, and building social empires out of Twitter accounts. Most of these authors don't get enough written. And I, Dear Reader, am very much one of Those Authors. There are many different jobs that a writer needs to get done. Some of them require some goof off time, many others require a whole lot of focus, dedication, and time in chair. For every hour I spend day dreaming about plot, I need to put in 6 more on writing and 20 more into editing.

Creating plot is the fun part for me; it's the bold and exciting part of any project where there are no wrong answers and everything is possible. Then there's the nuts and bolts writing, worrying about word choice, timing, continuity, style, and character. And then comes the dreaded editing. Punctuation, spelling, grammar, typographical errors, and all the other hobgoblins of good writing are the anchor that drags me down.

Which just makes it all the more exciting when I flex my mighty metaphorical thews and stand proud, lifting the anchor above my head and howling the author's fierce victory cry, "The End!" Somewhere between the slacker gazing out the window and the head's down keyboard cowboy, I get my best work done.

None of this is easy on my writing partners, most of whom have much, much better working habits than I do. Through clever planning and unearned audacity, I have multiple deadlines all converging right about ... now. Feverish typing at 3 in the morning has become pretty normal for me, and my collaborators are probably getting equally used to seeing my latest work first thing in the morning. I hope that working with me is rewarding on some level, because it surely frustrates on more than one.

For those of you out there looking forward to the final session of Serendipity Station and Feast of the Minotaur at Intercon L, please say nice things to my co-writers about how patient and considerate they have been. For those of you patiently waiting for my next interactive smart phone app and novel, that is still a way's off... For those patiently waiting for my next blog posting, here it is! How do you like it so far?

It has been said that writers wear many hats, the mind set, skill set, and temperament required for getting a rough draft out of your brain and onto the computer screen is entirely different from the hats you have to wear during later phases of any literary project. Switching gears is very hard for me, and I'm sure it's just as challenging for most other writers. But the rewards are pretty great so I'll keep doing it as long as I can. Because, frankly, I suck even worse at most everything else.

President's Day 1/20/2012
Chelmsford, MA