Thursday, 27 October 2011

It's all about Timing

As I stare down the barrel of the season's first snow, I find myself - to paraphrase Tom Lehrer - waxing philosophical while I wane sensical. Looking back on the weekend that just passed, everything went well. I and a group of friends ran a session of the Serendipity Station live action game and then the next day I got to play in A Dance of Flame and Shadow, an old school vampire game. By old school I mean that it harkened back to the live action games of the late 90's, so maybe the school isn't all that old.

I was struck by the structural differences between the two games. Having recently attended a weekend-long game (Once Upon a Time in Tombstone), a six hour-long game (Serendipity Station Game 5) and a four hour-long game (A Dance of Flame and Shadow), I'm in a good position to observe the differences between the three different forms.

In any role playing game, there is only so much game to go around. Whether you're talking about secrets to be discovered, interactions to had, puzzles to be solved, rituals to be performed, combat to be resolved, or any of the other myriad things that happen in a live action game, the most important thing is pacing. If all of your game gets burned through in the first quarter, you're going to have a whole pile of bored and grumpy players. But is it just as bad to have three quarters of the game all happen right at the end? There's nothing wrong with an exciting and dramatic climax, but if there's too much going on, players will feel rushed, confused, and yes, grumpy. Deciding how a game should be paced is a good start, but actually adhering to that pace during run-time is the brass ring. How to pace a game is a hotly contested challenge.

Once Upon a Time in Tombstone did it with a combination of lengthy and intricate character sheets, a moratorium on character death for most of the game, and regularly scheduled events. I think the writers also relied on the players having a sense of timing, drama, and fair-play inspired by the movies the game was based on. Most players won't want to have a big showdown with their arch-enemy first thing Saturday morning when they know that there will be a day and a half of game to play afterwards.

I've played in some great games that featured a steady trickle of information over the course of the game, sort of a serialized character sheet. This works particularly well in amnesia or other limited information games where that sort of thing makes sense in game as well as mechanically.

In Serendipity Station we employ a number of tools to control pacing. Our go-to method is something often referred to as a Social Puzzle. That's where one or more characters in the game know something that another character must discover in order to move forward with their own plots. This challenge has multiple levels. In some cases, the players (and their characters) don't know who has the information they need, so some time must be spent identifying who to speak to. An additional layer comes in to play when the characters with the information have reasons not to share it immediately or even at all. A well-written Social Puzzle will give the player the proper tools to eventually gain the information they need to move on. Examples include blackmail, fair trade, intimidation, or a mid-game paradigm shift that removes the original reason not to share.

We also had major in game information reveals that we hoped would spread through the gossip engine that most on-going campaign games enjoy. Since that information gave the players the tools they needed to resolve some major long-term plots we were confident that the information would get where it needed to go in reasonably good time. This is a risk because some players hoard information no matter how badly it hurts them, but we know our players pretty well at this point and we try to have at least three different sources for anything really important. We also had new characters enter game space at the half-way point and a half hour before game wrap with vital new information. That isn't always an option but when it is it can be a writer's best friend.

A Dance of Flame and Shadow used in game intelligence gathering methods (in my character's case, talking to rats), Social Puzzles, and escalating villainy to move the action and the plot inexorably forward to a series of rapid-fire climaxes and combats. I enjoyed the bulk of these combats from a nice comfortable laying down position as my character was a bit out of his depth in a fight and got hammered flat pretty quickly.

Pacing a live action or a tabletop role playing game isn't all that different from pacing a novel or a movie, but the writer has completely different tools, advantages, and limitations to make that pacing happen. In the end, the goal is the same: entertaining the audience. The main difference is how much absolute control versus collaboration the creators have in each project. From effectively complete control with a novel all the way down to the 'fire and forget' of an improvisational live action game, each level brings new challenges and rewards. Seeing what extreme wackiness players get up to with the pretexts and situations you have written for them is one of the great rewards of writing and running live action games.

But I'm still working on that timing thing.

October 27th, 2011
Chelmsford, MA

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

A tree grows in Chelmsford

Dear Reader,

As is rapidly becoming usual, I am once again not writing about Once Upon a Time in Tombstone. (which truly was a great game, honest!) No, today I am writing about the founding of an independent publishing company, my independent publishing company. Cherrytree Publishing, future home of Monday and the Murdered Man, Monday and the Apocalypse Engine, and Monday and the Clockwork Corpse. Yeah, I've got a theme going but it's working for me so far.

For those Dear Readers who don't know what is involved in the establishment of a publishing company, the following description will very likely be absolutely no help whatsoever. Sorry folks, but that's just the way I roll.


Yes, that's right, I'm pretty 'Street,' now.

So my first stop on the bureaucratic odyssey was my local banking establishment. Everyone was very nice and helpful and we got my accounts mostly set up, but since it was to be a business account, we couldn't finish without a few simple details. Simple in theory, but not so much in practice. I was informed that I needed to register as a business at the local town offices. 'Okay, that sounds easy enough,' I thought. 'I'm a townie, I should be able to handle this.'

I hop back into the author-mobile and scoot across town to the local town offices. So far, so good. I was pleasantly surprised at how well-labeled and organized the offices were; it took me no time at all to find the town clerk and slide into line behind all the other confused folks on their own bureaucratic odysseys. When it was my turn, I told the nice lady behind the counter what I wanted and she told me I had to go ... Downstairs. (cue: ominous music!)

Downstairs was everything I had been afraid of, narrow labyrinthine corridors with dozens of closed and cryptically labeled doors. I wandered aimlessly until I found a group of people waiting outside one particular closed and cryptically labeled door. I figured this many people couldn't be entirely wrong, strength in numbers, et cetera, et cetera. So I decided to get in line behind them. Eventually, it was my turn and I explained to the nice man behind the counter what I wanted and he told me - believe it or not, no word of a lie, that I had to go upstairs. Sometimes this blog just writes itself.

It turned out that the guy downstairs was the first person I needed to talk to, but I needed a form from upstairs first. I went upstairs, waited in another line, got the form I needed, went back ... Downstairs, got back into line #2 to talk to the guy who needed the form, filled out the form and got told by the guy that I needed to get it notarized and then give it back to the lady upstairs that I had gotten it from in the first place.

Notarized, check.

'Can I get that notarized somewhere in this building?' I ask.

'Nope,' the guy replies, 'new legislation says we can't do any notarizing.'

Somehow, I am not surprised. I ask where I can get the document notarized. The downstairs guy replies ... wait for it ... at the local banking establishment. I should have seen that one coming, in retrospect. It actually all made sense from a story perspective. And people ask where I get my ideas from.

I hop back into the author-mobile and scoot across town back to the local banking establishment. Everyone is pleasantly surprised to see me again so soon. 'So soon?' I ask. 'It feels like it's been weeks since I was here last.' The precious document is swiftly and duly notarized and I motor on back across town to the town offices. I slide back into the very first line and wait for one last time and I am in business. Cherrytree Publishing is born.


I wonder what tomorrow will bring.

Today's distraction: Ps238 Online! Read Aaron Williams' spectacularly funny, well-written, well-plotted and well-drawn comic about young super beings, their school, their teachers, parents, and adventures. I can't recommend this one highly enough.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

The Art of Procrastination

Things I should be doing right now:

  • A video project for

  • Working on Monday and the Apocalypse Engine

  • Paying bills, filing paperwork, reading catalogs, etc. at

  • Filling out the post-game report from “Once Upon a Time in Tombstone”

  • Writing a blog about “Once Upon a Time in Tombstone”

Things I am doing right now:

As you can see, my stats don't look so good. For me, being productive is the art and science of tricking myself into blowing off one project by doing another. Most of my major life successes have been achieved at the expense of whatever it is I was supposed to be doing at the time. In fact, I wrote most of Monday and the Murdered Man while I was supposed to be writing an entirely different novel, not to mention a live action game. I seem to need a 'straw project' to ignore while I do something else. If I only have one thing I'm meant to be doing, nothing gets done. Kids, don't try this at home. I'm a professional.

The good news is one of the totally awesome and cool things I found was my good buddy Dog doing something mind numbingly geeky and yes, totally awesome and cool. After you're done reading this, pop on over to his tumblr page and listen to him sing from The Canterbury Tales (in Middle English, naturally) to the tune of Billy Joel's “The Longest Time.”

Between Dog and Bruce Campbell, I might well have my hands full. Sadly, having multiple projects on my metaphorical plate doesn't seem to result in more than one thing getting done at at time. And that's a shame, really. Given the length of my average to-do list, I should be the most productive guy on the planet. I am not. In fact, working with me can be awfully frustrating for more traditionally productive types. I generally meet my deadlines, but not with much space to wiggle around in. Douglas Adams once wrote, "I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they go by." I don't know if I actually love deadlines, as such, but I do seem to need them if I'm ever going to get anything done.

Perhaps I need the 'juice' that comes from impending deadline doom. Perhaps I need the threat of imminent failure. Maybe I'm just lazy. Whatever the reason, I've had the most success when large groups of friends (many of whom own swords) are eagerly awaiting whatever it is I've promised to produce.

So fear not, friends, readers, and random internet browsers, all of the things on my list will eventually happen. Some of them may even happen tonight. But right now I'm doing this thing right here, and it seems to be going pretty well. Which is more than I can say for Bruce Campbell over in The Adventures of Briscoe County, Jr., he seems to be in a bit of trouble right now. Oh, and here's the link to Dog's tumblr:

Chelmsford, MA
October 15, 2011

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Unexpectedly Harrowing and Accidentally Epic

Greetings Dear Reader and welcome to the second installment of an ongoing and poorly organized tour of my brain.

I had intended this to be an entertaining and informative recap of my weekend adventures in Hagerstown, MD where I was fortunate enough to participate in “Once Upon a Time in Tombstone,” a weekend-long live action roleplaying game set in the wild American West. However, to quote Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, “This is not the comedy we intended to do when the week began.”

No, that tale shall have to wait. Instead, I present the unexpectedly harrowing and accidentally epic story of how I and my boon companion and federal crime-fighter (hereafter referred to as Federal Crime-Fighter) traveled back and forth across the Eastern Seaboard in four different cars and countless different states. No human beings were harmed, injured, or oppressed during the making of this adventure. Sadly, the same cannot be said about cars.

The trip began innocently enough. My good friend the Federal Crime-Fighter suggested that we travel to the game together. She lives in Connecticut, which – I am reliably informed – is closer to Maryland than my own beloved Commonwealth of Massachusetts, so I piled myself and an inordinate amount of Western-style clothing into my faithful author-mobile and trucked on down to meet her at her Crime-Fighting Cave. We put my inordinate pile of Western-style clothing on top of her pile, clambered into her faithful crime-fighting-mobile and we were off. (Noted for the record, the faithful crime-fighting-mobile is her off duty car and not an Official Government Vehicle. Had an actual Official Government Vehicle been used, things might have been much, much more complicated.) For the first several hours of our trip, all went well. The conversation was agreeable and occasionally witty; the traffic was relatively light and so were our hearts and minds.

We decided to take a short rest break in Berndardsville, NJ. The town was chosen because my good friend the Federal Crime-Fighter (hereafter referred to as The Fed, because this is just getting way too long) has relatives nearby. It turns out that I do too, but that isn't relevant to the story, merely a point of trivial interest for the hard-core Andy Kirschbaum fans out there. We were cruising along Rte. 202 in Bernardsville at a comfortable clip when things went downhill rapidly. I shall not relate the details of The Incident; suffice to say that it was brief, highly impact-full, and turned the crime-fighting-mobile from a well-maintained, finely-tuned engine of cross-continental travel into a decoratively-crumpled Go-Kart inclined to fly apart in a stiff breeze or at the first indications of a sharp left turn. I hasten once again to assure you, Dear Reader, that no human beings were harmed, injured, or oppressed during The Incident. We were, however, mildly surprised to find ourselves standing on the side of Rte. 202 in Bernardsville, NJ awaiting the arrival of the local authorities. The nice lady driving what we shall call, for technical purposes, The Other Car was quite friendly and helpful as we exchanged pleasantries and vital statistics.

In short order, Officer Friendly of the Bernardsville, NJ police department showed up. Now, I will admit that I have been known to apply the occasional sarcastic nickname to the people I encounter in my travels, but absolutely no sarcasm is intended in this case. Officer Friendly of the Bernardsville, NJ police department was efficient, polite, helpful, and – yes, friendly. Based on the reactions, attitudes, and sudden swooning from every female in the immediate vicinity, I also gathered that Officer Friendly was quite the hunk. I often miss small details like this. As an author and literary specialist, it is possible that my mind is too keenly focused to notice such things. Another small detail that had escaped my keen literary notice was pointed out by Officer Friendly when he examined my ID. Apparently, my license to operate a motor vehicle had expired slightly over a month ago. Yes, Dear Reader, it was shaping up to be One of Those Trips.

After everything was as sorted out as it was likely to get, Officer Friendly bid us and the lady in The Other Car a fond farewell and we GPSed up the location of the nearest Insurance-Approved body shop. We found one that was supposedly a mere 11 miles away, as the crow flies. How, we wondered, did people do this before Smart Phones and GPS devices? We limped the poor wounded crime-fighting-mobile to the aforementioned Insurance-Approved body shop. And believe me when I tell you this was a harrowing and hazard-light filled trip. The supposedly mere 11 mile trip turned out to include a stint on the highway and far more than 11 miles on twisty back roads. Both of us held our breath and sat quite still, fearing any excess movement might cause our vehicle to explode apart into chrome and tinsel. It didn't. After turning around and backtracking once or twice (the GPS may well have known where it was going, but we didn't) we safely arrived at the body shop.

Paperwork was filled out and heels were cooled while we waited for the nice people from the not-so-nearby rental car company to come and get us. We were instructed, warned, and admonished not to forget anything in the car when we left. We politely tolerated these thoughtful words. Surely we would not be so foolish as to leave anything behind? Surely not. (Note for the record, this confidence will come back to bite us in a future episode of this very blog.) Eventually, the nice people from the not-so-nearby rental car company arrive with our car. They assure us, that this was the only available car and if we truly wanted to make it to Maryland tonight, this was our only way.

Believe me Dear Reader when I tell you that this 'car' was one good meal away from being a school bus. If we could have lifted it, we could have easily tucked the original crime-fighting-mobile inside and still had room for both passengers, all of our piles of inordinate Western-style clothing and perhaps a mid-sized nuclear family in the back seat. I'm saying this car was big. But it was also the only car available. Also, because of my embarrassing license situation, the Fed was the only driver available. Given our options, we took the car and returned to our journey. And so it came to pass, a mere 4 hours after we stopped off the road for a quick rest stop and sanitary break, we finally made it back onto the road and continued our trip, somewhat worse for the wear.

A few blessedly uneventful hours later, we approach our destination. The Fed asks me to call a soon-to-be local costume shop to see if they will be open tomorrow (Saturday) morning so she can pick up a wig for her costume. She knows the name of the store she's looking for and with a little bit of Web-Fu, I manage to track down a phone number. We once again wonder how these things were done in the days before Smart Phones and GPS devices. I call the number and a pleasant-sounding gentleman answers the phone, but not with the name of the costume store I thought I was calling. I ask if I have reached the number to whom I am speaking. I am informed that I have. I ask about their Saturday morning hours. I am informed that the costume store has gone out of business. I am sympathetic, but ask if there is another local store where I might be able to get a wig tomorrow morning. The gentleman asks me if I am looking for a wig for my wife. I respond that the wig is for a lady. This is, apparently insufficient information, so the gentleman once again asks – as if, perhaps, he had misheard me – “Is this wig for your wife?” I glance over at my good friend the Federal Crime-Fighter and decide that some battles are simply not worth fighting over the phone. “Yes,” I reply. “Yes, it is.”

With the honor of the wig business upheld, the gentleman gave me the address of another costume shop and we were able to arrive at the hotel without further comedy. Even though the game had already begun by the time we dragged ourselves down, several friends broke character to wish us well and greet us. I amiably explained, that my horse had broken down outside of town and we had to get a replacement rental horse. The Fed explained, to those who asked, that "there was a problem with the wagon," and that some complicated repairs were necessary outside of town, and that at least no one died of dysentery, and that hopefully, soon enough, all would be well to raft down the Dalles. The Fed it seems is a big fan of “Oregon Trail.” Eventually, the two of us got into costume and into character and managed to have a lovely evening in Tombstone of the 1880's. The next morning, while I got into a showdown with my coffee, the Fed went off to trade in our enormous rental bus for something smaller (and cheaper!) and purchase the aforementioned wig of honor. I am pleased to report that she was successful in both endeavors.

Stay tuned to this web page for the game report and the (much less exciting) story of our return trip (and my adventures at the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles...)

October 13th, 2011
Chelmsford, MA (and various points South)

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Who he is and how he came to be!

Hello and welcome to a ongoing and poorly organized tour of my brain.

Who am I?

My name is Andy Kirschbaum and I'm a novelist, game store owner, LARP writer and general nerd-about-town. You can find my store at or in lovely downtown Chelmsford, Massachusetts. Most days you can find me there, too, if you're interested in meeting me in person. Confidentially, I'm much more interesting over the internet, also taller.

When I'm not writing novels or goofing off, I'm writing LARPs. LARP is a very silly acronym for Live Action Role Playing game. Which basically means dressing up, walking and talking while you're playing role playing games. It's great fun and absorbs all of my spare time, money and sanity. I'm currently involved in two live action role playing games, which is an ongoing campaign and Feast of the Minotaur which is scheduled to run at I'm collaborating on both projects with other very talented creators and I'm lucky to be able to work with them.

I'm currently in the process of publishing my first novel, Monday and the Murdered Man. My previously published interactive story, Verdigris, is available from the Apple iTune store. I also just wrapped up a successful project at to fund a print run of Monday and the Murdered Man. If you come to this blog by way of any of those links, welcome! If you just happened along, you're even more welcome! I'm glad to have you along and reading.

While I will talk a lot about the writing and publishing process in this blog, it's not going to be my primary subject. There are lots and lots of fantastic blogs that already cover these subjects in depth, and I'll certainly be talking about some of my favorites going forward. ( is a must-read for all aspiring author/publishers) I'll also be talking about board games and role playing games that catch my fancy, as well as other diversions I enjoy ranging from television, movies, coffee, books, comics, web comics and anything shiny that catches my eye. And yes, I will occasionally talk about politics, but not too often. Hopefully, there will be something of interest for everyone who stops by. Please feel free to suggest topics for consideration; I don't promise anything, but sooner or later, I'm going to run out of things to say and believe me when I say, I'll be grateful for the suggestions then!

Because I'm largely self-absorbed and more than a little bit egotistical, I'll be talking about what I'm currently up to in any given week. As often as not, that will amount to a lot of goofing off. I'll also talk about what I should be doing instead of goofing off, just for the record.

Speaking of goofing off, I recently discovered a really cool web comic called 'The Bean.' You can find it at and decide for yourself how cool it is. Writer/Artist Travis Hanson has a very clean style. His use of negative space and creative borders is as visually appealing as the story itself, and I love the little lizards and faces carved into rocks that accumulate in the corners of panels. It's a fantasy epic, by the way, so be prepared for a long haul. You won't find daily punchlines or quick story resolution, but you will find interesting characters that develop slowly and a well-developed world with a past and a future.

Speaking of what I should be doing instead of goofing off, my writing partners and I are in the final stages of preparation for the October 22nd run of Serendipity Station. The tricky part of writing a game with multiple authors is continuity. We try to get the primary writing done a month before game run so we can go over everything with a fine-tooth comb and find where we contradict ourselves. We're in the continuity stage of things right now and it can be challenging having to re-write things that were 'put to bed' days or weeks ago. We've done this 4 times so far and I think each game has been better than the one before. Live action gaming is an ephemeral art. It's a collaboration between the writers and the players and when it's over it's gone and lives only in our memories. Is it worth all the time and effort and expense? I think so, but you'd have to ask my players, or perhaps my co-writers.

In novel news, now that the Kickstarter project is complete (yay!) I'm reaching out to a small army of professionals to design the physical book, the electronic book (multiple versions), web site, and what-have-you. The hunt for a cover artist continues, as does my stressing over which printer to use. There are so many tiny little decisions to make. When I was a wee tyke dreaming of being a published author some far-off day, I never dreamed about which fonts looked good together or worrying about white or cream-colored paper. Reality is so much more complicated than fantasy.

October 1, 2011
Chelmsford, MA