Photo Credit: geishaboy500 via Compfight cc

Check out these rad postcards

biblioboxOne of the rewards I’ve promised to my $5+ supporters on Patreon are personally mailed postcards every month. Of course, when making that promise I didn’t consider where one finds postcards… I think I imagined myself just ambling down to the post office and grabbing whatever I could find once a month.

Instead, I browsed around on Amazon until I found these — striking monochrome postcards featuring famous literary quotes. Sounded pretty cool to me, so I went ahead and ordered them.

They arrived over the weekend. What did I find?

Awesomeness.

The Cards

The cardstock is nice, the art has a detail and depth to it, and many of the quotes hit me deep enough to tap the spine.

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I think my supporters are going to get a kick out of these. I know I do.

 

Questions? You are invited to either leave a comment below, or ask directly through the comment form.
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Cold Reboot goes wide

Cold Reboot, the first title in the Shadow Decade series of cyberpunk thrillers, has exited its stint in Kindle Unlimited, and is now available through the following ebook retailers:

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Cold Reboot has also been adapted into an audiodrama for the next season of the Synesthesia Theatre podcast. Look for it to start early next month.

Questions? You are invited to either leave a comment below, or ask directly through the comment form.
Photo Credit: geishaboy500 via Compfight cc

The Heartbreak of Short Fiction Paralysis

The better I understand the structure and format of short fiction, the harder I find it to write.


I started writing not too long after I started reading. Kindergarten, maybe first grade. And, of course, I started with short fiction in the style of the stories I most liked to read, twisty “O. Henry” style works with unexpected twists at the end, usually with some element of the horrific.

I don’t remember much about what I read back in the 80s, but I do remember that my grandparents had big books of short horror stories, haunted houses, aliens, creatures from the swamp. “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” I think. Along with a lot of Hardy Boys books in burlap-colored covers, but this post is about shorts so we’ll stick to that.

In my adolescence I read a lot of Stephen King. I’ve always preferred his short fiction; I think he has less room to meander and wander off the plot, so the endings are never as unsatisfying as his novels can on occasion be. I think King is one of my favorite short fiction authors, and that probably informed my early efforts more than a little.

Anyway.

I’d never written a novel, nor seriously attempted one, when I began self-publishing in 2011. Accordingly, my first few ebooks – “Apocalypse Party,” “Oh Human Child,” “And They Called Her Spider,” “Maiden Voyage of the Rio Grande,” “On the Trail of the Scissorman” under my own name and a bunch of others under pen names – were shorts in the 5-10k word range. They gradually got longer and longer until I was writing short novels with March of the Cogsmen and from that point onward, I didn’t really go back to shorts.

I’ve thought about it. I’ve read about it. And as I’ve grown more comfortable with the elbow room that a novel provides, I’ve found that I am less able to just whip off a short story. Why?

Well. If you google it, you’ll find that there are two basic camps regarding what a short story even is.

  1. A short story is basically a short novel but uses the same basic structure.
  2. No it isn’t.

The more I think about novel structure and the way I write, the more I find myself in the second camp. My current belief, sure to change given enough time, is that a short story’s format lies somewhere between a poem and a joke. There’s a set-up, there’s a punch-line, though it doesn’t have to be funny. You’re just trying to evoke something. The telling of the story, primary to the novel, becomes a servant of that something you’re trying to evoke.

In a humorous or horrifying story the something is subversion of expectation, either to delight or terrify the reader. In other stories, you’re not necessarily trying to subvert, but you still need that set up to give the punch-line its “oomph.”

So yeah. I don’t know. I find that a short can take a lot more thought, consideration, and planning to “work” to my design specifications. My standards are higher than my experience can deliver. So I sit here, working on my novels and not writing short stories, until I can figure out how.

Questions? You are invited to either leave a comment below, or ask directly through the comment form.
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Last Minute GMing: Running the Blank Page

In the prior two posts in this series we came up with a great idea for an RPG session and scrawled out some quick notes to flesh it out. Now our guests are here, the Mountain Dew is flowing, and the dice are rolling. How do we run our game?

The Fine Art of Improvisational GMing

The key to improv as a GM is to take notes as you go along. You’re going to be making up a lot on the fly, and keeping track of what you’ve told the players is necessary to maintain any kind of consistency. Nothing ruins “winging it” worse than contradicting yourself. Your players will notice.

Specifically, you’ll want to keep track of:

  • Names of people, places, and things
  • Dates when things happened or will happen
  • Distances to different places
  • Whatever traits you invent for the people they meet and the places they go

These notes don’t have to be extensive. Just a word or two scribbled on your page to jog your memory. Don’t be afraid to draw diagrams or maps to keep for reference as you go along.

Makin’ Stuff Up

So how do you make up stuff on the fly?

Keep it Simple

Don’t do extra work. For NPCs, assume that they’re entirely average in any way you don’t bother defining — 10s across the board, if that’s the scale of your system. Don’t bother fleshing out anything but the traits used in the way they’ll interact with your PCs. For canon fodder, work up combat stats. For people the PCs will interact with socially, figure out what their agenda is and what they’re willing to settle for.

Take notes.

Use Tools

It’s 2016 so chances are you’re playing in an area with wifi and have a tablet or smartphone. There are tons of resources for making up stuff on the fly. Use them extensively. Here are a few links to get you started:

  • Random dot org if you don’t feel like rolling or need a weird random number.
  • Behind the name Names sorted by cultural origin. I like to use Random dot Org to roll a d24, then roll a d(however many names there are) to get one.
  • Chris Pound’s Name Generators create new names by using a given language’s patterns. Useful for fantasy names that share a consistent sound.
  • Donjon Random Weather Generator let’s you decide with a click what the weather is going to be like today.

Other than that, just do your best to bounce off the ideas your players are giving you. Go with the flow, let them drive a bit. You know what your villain is going to be doing if the PCs don’t interfere, so just describe that to them from their perspectives.

Questions? You are invited to either leave a comment below, or ask directly through the comment form.
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Last Minute GMing: Filling the Blank Page

Continuing our discussion on last-minute prep from last week:

The simplest scenario structure is that an antagonist wants something, and is doing something to get it.

We need a bad guy.

Our antagonist is simply the person the PCs will be opposing in this story. He doesn’t have to be a “bad” guy. He can have the best of intentions. The problem is, he becomes a problem for the PCs in some way.

If we’re lucky, our random title has given us our antagonist.

In Ghostborn, we know who our antagonist is: Ghost Mom. We spend a little time fleshing her out, decide that she was super over-protective in life. Maybe she had an earlier kid that she mothered to death somehow.

However, other times our random idea seed doesn’t quite give us an idea of who our PCs might be opposing.

Sky Cave gave us imagery of a floating rock with a cave inside it. That might suggest some possible villains, but nothing explicitly.

We could extrapolate an antagonist from the idea – an airship pirate, dragons, a sentient mountain — but this process is holistic rather than procedural. We have two other elements to explore, and either of them might inform our choice of villain.

What motivates our villain?

Once we know who our baddie is, we can go back and figure out what it is they’re trying to accomplish. Often this gives us our hook as well — it’s something that puts them at cross purposes with our PCs directly.

Options Automatons Face provides a motivation: Automatons want more choices. Maybe they want equal rights, or simply more legal protections. Since our PCs are cops protecting the status quo, this puts them at loggerheads with the androids’ aims.

In Ghostborn our Ghost Mom wants to protect her boy. While it’s easy to think about all the ways that can go horrifically wrong, it doesn’t directly bring conflict with the PCs. Its manifestations might, which brings us to our third point.

What’s their evil plan?

The third thing we need to know is what the antagonist is doing to get from the way things are to the way he or she wants them to be. If the villain’s goal itself doesn’t put it at odds with the PCs, then the means it is going about getting it must, or we don’t have a plot.

In Ghostborn, Ghost Mom’s boy has been in a series of foster care situations. The rough situation combined with being constantly haunted hasn’t been good for his mental state, so he’s in trouble a lot. Ghost Mom has had enough, and is starting to use her ghostly powers to stop the people tormenting her boy… not just bullies, but social workers, foster parents, and anyone else that the troubled teen gets into conflict with. Maybe Ghost Mom starts out scaring people, but this escalates to serious accidents and even deaths.

Options Automatons Face has a spate of android-committed crimes as the machines try to get attention for their plight. It’s intended as protest, but the media plays it up into a crime wave or terrorism. The PC Cops might even sympathize with the androids, but pressure from city hall is heavy, and they have a job to do.

We don’t know who our antagonist is in Sky Cave or what they want, but we know it involves a floating cave. Why is this at odds with our PCs? In Heroic Fantasy tradition we don’t really need much more than “hey maybe there’s cool stuff in that dungeon,” but let’s be clever. Sky Cave is floating around over the kingdom disgorging flying monsters. It’s a mobile base from which they are raiding. This, incidentally, gives us our villain’s motivation: raiding the kingdom. Who is behind it? Well, someone who controls flying monsters and a giant flying monster is obviously a powerful demon lord of some kind. So now we have our three components.

Alright, we have our plot. To make it really useful, we need to break it down into a step-by-step list of what happens if the PCs do not intervene.

Putting it all together

This leaves us with a single-sheet length adventure scenario. We don’t have stats or anything and it might need some fleshing out, but we can do that in play. We’ll cover that in the third part of our series, where I cover how you actually use your one sheet adventure at the table.

Questions? You are invited to either leave a comment below, or ask directly through the comment form.
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Last Minute GMing: Vanquishing the Blank Page

Gaming is a fun hobby, but it’s just that, a hobby. Taking on the role of GM is a hefty responsibility, but real life should always take precedence, and sometimes our more important responsibilities — career, family, sleep — eat away at our game prep time until there’s nothing left, and we’re stuck on Friday night with five friends coming over and nothing planned.

One solution is to cancel the game. Do something else. Watch a movie. Go out and have a drink or three. Hang out, have a good time, and don’t let yourself be pressured into running a session you’re not prepared to. Unfortunately, if you frequently find time slipping away from yourself during the week, you may discover that you’re spending less and less time actually playing. When does a hobby become something you used to do?

The alternative is to adapt your play-style to the realities of your life. And to do that, you need to learn to run games with very little prep.

All you need is an idea

Okay, it isn’t all you need, but it’s a prerequisite for anything else. GM’s Block can strike at any time, but when you’re low on time and need to get started it can pop up in a very insistent form. Sometimes, what you need is a good core idea to shake your creativity free.

Where do you get your ideas?

Literally all over the place. Borrow them, steal them, dream them. Let your subconscious mind work on them while you’re doing other things. All true, but it doesn’t help much when you’re on the spot and have to come up with something RIGHT NOW.

In that case, allow me to humbly present to you a random title generator I wrote a while back. It was intended to be used to spark short stories, but it works just fine for RPG sessions.

Just click the button until you get a title that gives you that jolt of inspiration and go to town.

Example one:

I’m running a modern horror campaign, and I need an idea. I click and get the title Ghostborn. First thing that comes to mind is a troubled kid haunted by his mother, who died in childbirth, and has been “protecting” her son with various poltergeist effects.

Example two:

Heroic fantasy game, I get The Sky of Cave. I tweak it to the Sky Cave, and think about a mysterious floating mountain into which an airship might fly.

Example three:

Cyberpunk police procedural. We get the title Options Automatons Face. Something about self-aware robots trying to make hard choices.

Okay cool, now what?

Anyone can have an idea. They’re cheap. They’re common. They’re worthless. The true mark of creativity is turning those ideas into something useful. We don’t have a lot of time, so we’re going to be light on detail. In fact, our goal is to get an entire session’s notes down on a single sheet of paper.

We’ll cover that next week in Part 2.

 

Questions? You are invited to either leave a comment below, or ask directly through the comment form.
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Kitchen Sink Gaming: Gamer’s Paradise

Synopsis: High school students find themselves catapulted through dimensional barriers into a number of fantastic scenarios.

Setup

The PCs are members of a high-school’s gaming club. While gamer interests can be eclectic, they should be more or less normal with zero to minimal combat or survival skills. As always, be cautious about letting players play themselves.

Depending on the system you’re using, you may wish to offer the players a “Gamer” or “Genre Awareness” skill. This skill might give them (potentially erroneous) information about what their characters know about the game scenarios and settings they encounter. Let players roll against the skill to use game-related info they might know (but their characters might not) or to give them potentially misleading hints. (See Genre Awareness below)

Act I

In Act I, the players are drawn from their normal mundane lives into a world of danger and excitement.

The Hook

It’s a new school year, and the gamers have been granted a group charter with the school. They’ll be given a faculty adviser and a room to play in after classes, and all they have to do is clear out a storage room to meet in.

The Inciting Incident

While cleaning, one of the characters discovers an old D20 made out of soapstone. While picking it up or showing it to someone else it gets rolled, dropped, etc. The die bounces thunderously, time seems to slow down, and then everything goes black.

The die is a magical artifact, a relic created by the hopes, dreams, and imaginations of a group of gamers who used to play here a decade ago. Troubled kids with rough home lives, the gamers managed to escape the real world for an imaginary reality where they themselves became gods. The echoes of the games they played as part of this great ritual exist as pseudo-realities, worlds the current player find themselves drawn into.

Act II

The meat of the campaign takes the form of published role-playing scenarios that the players have found themselves drawn into. It isn’t as straightforward as that, but here’s the basic pattern.

The Arrival

The players find themselves in a new world, as different from the one they’ve just left as possible. They arrive with nothing but what they were wearing and carrying at the point of transfer. If players try to exploit this, figure out some fair weight or encumbrance limit. Want to play on hard mode? Every new world they show up naked.

Acclimatization

Typically the players will have a few months to prepare before finding the scenario’s adventure hook. Or rather, they have to survive and get by in a new world in which they have no resources, contacts, or footing. As the players accumulate actual survival skills, this will become easier, but for the most part this period will be spent learning about the world.

After they have gotten slightly settled, to the point of having basic needs covered, you can compress most of this into downtime. Keep track of how old the player are. Inform them when they age.

The Scenario

After a few months, when they have a good sense of the world they’re in, have them encounter the RPG scenario’s hooks. Let them go through the adventure as best they can… and to be honest, ordinary high-school kids won’t do so well in even first-level adventures, but some games are geared towards normal folks.

You have a few options for dealing with player losses:

  • Dead is dead. If they die, they’re out of the game. Make up a new character (see below).
  • Dead is gone. If they die, they’re out of the current scenario. They go to the safehouse. (see below).
  • Dues ex Machina. If the player is in serious danger, they jump to the safehouse, before anyone dies. (see below)

If the players ignore the plot hook, or if they abandon an adventure, they jump to the safehouse. If they win, let them enjoy their victory for a few days, but jumping to the safehouse is inevitable.

The Safehouse

Between adventures, the players find themselves in The Safehouse, a small and safe reality where they can rest and recuperate. It takes the form of a comfortable and quiet place that fulfills their basic needs… an island beachhouse, a furnished apartment in an empty city, a spaceship floating in the void. It has enough food and water for a few days of relaxation, and the magic d20, maybe a few entertainment options like boardgames or VHS tapes.

There’s nowhere else to go — the spaceship never reaches anywhere, swimming away from the island doesn’t find any other land, the windows and door of the apartment are painted on — and food will eventually run out. Eventually, they’ll have to roll the die or starve to death.

If you’re feeling creative, make the nature of the safehouse match the next scenario you have planned.

Another thing to decide: Are the players healed of injuries upon returning to the safehouse? If not, give them medical supplies too.

Player Death

If you’re planning on killing players off, then you should have some mechanic for bringing in new PCs. There are three basic options:

  1. The player “promotes” an NPC from the current scenario of around equivalent capabilities into a PC. He travels with the PCs when they jump next.
  2. The player creates a new PC appropriate to the next setting, and joins the PCs when they appear.
  3. The new PC is a human from earth, either a club member who didn’t appear right away or someone who found a die elsewhere. If the former, decide whether they’ve been trapped in some other world alone this whole time, or if they just “jumped” to the next world without experiencing the time they “missed.”

Act III

Eventually the PCs will start to put the pieces together and figure out what exactly is going on and how to get home. Seed act two with clues as to the nature of the gamer-gods behind all this. Maybe glimpses of gargantuan figures around a table, or see strange scenes from the broken lives that led them to create this reality.

Give them clues to follow up on, let them start seeing anachronistic “cracks” in the different scenarios.

If and how they follow up on these breadcrumbs is up to the players. React to them. Let them get the attention of these gods by trying to “break” the scenarios, then let them plead their cases.

Subverting Genre Awareness

One important thing to capture the right feeling for this game is to make the game settings slightly different from what the players are expecting. Try and make them more “real” in ways that belie typical RPG tropes. Downplay any elements added by the designers for playability and try to envision what these worlds would be like if they were real.

For whatever value of real you’re interested in. Make adventuring unpleasant. Focus on the unpleasant details these games often skim over.

Or don’t. It’s your game.

Variations

I ain’t no nerd! The players are not themselves playing gamers. Instead they’re playing kids on detention forced to clean out the building over a weekend. The game otherwise continues as normal, but the characters won’t necessarily have the same level of genre awareness. They might be more capable, or at least, more trouble-prone.

We have to find the kids! The players are the parents of children who have gone missing, police officers or detectives investigating the disappearance, and school faculty showing them the room that went missing. This gives us a more capable group of characters, with a stronger goal than simply finding their way home again.

Questions? You are invited to either leave a comment below, or ask directly through the comment form.
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Kitchen Sink Gaming: Virtual Beta Testers

If you’re like me, you’ve accumulated a lot of spare gaming materials as you’ve gone along, orphans from systems you may never play again. Sometimes you get some use out of this stuff by adapting it to a new modern system, but a lot of it just sits around taking up space.

Virtual Beta Testers

Setup: The players are ordinary modern-day thirtysomethings who played tabletop rpgs together in high-school. They’ve grown up and gone their separate ways, with lives and families of their own.

Hook: The guy they used to game with back in the day, Benny, contacts them out of the blue. He works for a tech company designing VR hardware, and offers them the chance to beta-test the system, shipping them the gear and instructing them in its use.

Act I: Benny acts as GM, sending them scenarios and instructing them in the game’s use. Run the players through a variety of RPG scenarios, giving them virtual characters to play, but describe them as if they were interfacing with a virtual world. Use Act I to get the players used to the idea of the separation of player, in-game player, and in-game character.

Act II: The next phase of testing involves turning off the in-game character layer. The players play using their own natural abilities, whatever they are. Let them discover that playing this way is a way to learn actual adventurer skills… not magic or anything, but real combat, vehicular, etc.

Act III: Benny reveals that the “game” is actually an advanced military training simulator, and that he broke a lot of rules testing it with the PCs, but he was having a mental breakdown and missed his friends. Now the military/bad guys/corporation are after them for Knowing Too Much. Good thing they spent act II training!

The Mechanics: Make sure to make the VR technology “realistic.” The PCs aren’t “in the game”, but wearing a helmet and interacting with a virtual landscape. Describe video-game like HUDs. Keep track of time, and make sure that they remember they have real lives and obligations.

Option: The VR gear is just a dummy. The system works through nanomachines attached to the players’ neurons, overriding their sensory input when “played.” They’re running around with advanced tech in their heads… and what if they get hacked?

Next time we’ll examine a similar scenario, though one that’s a bit more fantasy than science fiction.

Questions? You are invited to either leave a comment below, or ask directly through the comment form.