Randomness for 12/8

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1. Domestic abuse: Killers ‘follow eight-stage pattern’, study says.

2. The real reason hearing your own voice can make you cringe.

3. Water isn’t the most hydrating beverage according to new scientific study

4. Twenty Years Later and the Women of ANGEL Deserve More.

5. The Trajectory of Fear – or How to Use Horror Tropes Effectively in your [TTRPG]

6. What happens when you eat like the Queen of England for a week?

7. People Are Confused About the Usefulness of Buying Fancy Things

For Every Failure, an Opportunity

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If you’re backing my Patreon, you may have noticed that it has been switched back on. That is, it’s back to a monthly basis, charging credit cards at the start of every month. I’d turned it “off” because I’d started a new job. As of this week I’m no longer working there, so it’s on again.

I’ve never been fired for being bad at a job before, but you know what? It was the right thing for them to do. I absolutely should have been let go. And I’m glad for it.

In previous posts I was a little cagey about where I’d been hired because it was a six-month contract at a game company, and I was sure how it would go. I’ll say now that it was the Valve Corporation over in Bellevue. I’ll also say that they asked me not to talk about the games I worked on/heard about/whatever outside of their offices, even to my own family. I haven’t done that and I won’t start now.

How it happened was this: Gabe, the founder of the company, liked my books and invited me to lunch. This was back in, I think, 2012? 2013? Several months before my Kickstarter for The Great Way, at least. I’d heard of Valve’s games but hadn’t played any, and I honestly thought he was going to ask if I would write a novel for the company. But lunch wasn’t just me and Gabe, we were joined by a bunch of writers already working for the company, and I was all What am I doing here? Nobody needs me to write a novel when they already have Marc Laidlaw sitting right there.

It turned out the offer was to work at the company on the actual games, which I had to decline. I didn’t play many video games because a) they were often asking me to do shit that was illegal and immoral, which I hate and b) too many games were boring, making me quit early, and most of all c) if I did like them, I could be obsessive about it. I mean, Freedom Force and its sequel were scads of fun, but playing them, I spent hours with my back to the living room, and every other aspect of my life suffered. I’m not exactly Mr. Moderation. My wife was especially unhappy to be ignored evening after evening while I shot pretend ray guns at cartoon people.

After that lunch meeting, I started playing (and enjoying) games a lot more, and Valve was a big reason for that. I love the Portal and Half-Life games–like, genuinely loved playing them–because they didn’t ask me to run errands, murder innocent people or navigate lots of high places without railings (seriously the worst). As my son got older, he started recommending games that suited me better, and so I felt I understood them a little better. I never became good, but they made sense in a conceptual way

Then we came to the end of 2018. I’d taken a big gamble after The Great Way and Key/Egg came out. I put two years into a fat fantasy with a cool setting, a plot that was a little out of the ordinary, and badass characters. The plan was simple. Write a book that stands out, place it with NY publishers, and let the backlist bump spill some extra coins into our savings accounts.

Except it didn’t work. Publishers passed. The book was too different, or too something, and there was no new contract and therefore no bump.

At that point, we’d been living off the money from The Great Way for too long and our savings was getting low (not to mention rent increases and a possible eviction in the coming months), so my wife asked me to find a day job, and I thought about Valve, and I reached out. Did, maybe, I have something to contribute there?

Nope! But I didn’t know that at the time.

Gabe and his people were nice enough to give me a chance though, working on a multiplayer team-fighting game that was in the very early stages. I was to do worldbuilding for them.

Which meant: Where and Why.

Where are they fighting?

Why are they fighting?

Those were the two questions I was supposed to answer, and over the course of two months, I couldn’t make a suggestion that both matched the criteria they’d given me and also made the rest of the team excited. Two full months! Of course they let me go.

As a writer, I’ve had my share of one-star reviews. And you don’t grow up in a family like mine and get all tender-hearted about what people think of you. But when you’re sitting in a meeting, and everyone looks miserable because of you–because of the mouth-sounds you’re making–well, that suuuuucks.

You guys should have seen some of the body language in the room for that last meeting. Picture, if you will, a person sitting on a bench at a bus stop at night. They’ve forgotten their jacket, and it’s sleeting. That’s exactly some of those guys were sitting: hunched over, head down, waiting for all this to just be over.

And that was my fault.

See, it doesn’t matter if it’s a great company, or that the money was good, or that there was a free salad bar at lunch every day with chick peas you could scoop right into the bowl (seriously, so fucking delicious). None of that shit matters if the work itself is a waste of time to everyone on the team, including the person doing it. That’s demoralizing as hell.

Me, personally, I think the setting I created for that last meeting would be a home run in all sorts of media–books, animation, whatever–but not in computer games and certainly not in the game they’re working so hard to create. It just didn’t fit. And at this point, I don’t care where my proposals came up short or if they went too far or what was actually wrong. All that matters is that it wasn’t successful, and Valve owns it, and I hope they can cherry-pick a few things out of it that they find useful. And if they can’t, sorry, guys.

Where does that leave me? Not unemployed, exactly, since I’m working for myself again.

Those two months helped refill our bank accounts a little, and I have three completed, unreleased novel manuscripts. One is that big gamble. Another is a mystery/thriller with no supernatural elements. Another is the fun fantasy adventure that needs a little bit more tweaking before my agent takes it to NY publishers.

I’m composing this during the time I’m supposed to be writing a novelette for an anthology I’ve been invited to, but I put that off because I feel like I owe you guys an update on where things stand, fiction-wise. I’ve spent the last two months squeezing my own projects into the hour before I went into the office, but now that I’m back on my own time, things will go faster.

My fun fantasy will go out to publishers (“Funpunk”! You heard it here first, folks). My big gamble book and the thriller will be self-published. Kickstarter maybe? We’ll have to see. I also have to write the next Twenty Palaces novella. And at some point soon, we’ll look again at our bank accounts and maybe I’ll grab another day job.

So I wanted you to know that, even though I haven’t published a new novel since 2015(!) I haven’t stopped writing. I haven’t stopped working hard. There’s new stuff on the horizon and, you know, maybe I won’t try those big gambles again.

Thanks for reading.

Randomness for 5/6

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1) Coming Clean: The Physics of Doing Laundry

2) D&D Creatures Created by a Neural Network are Weird.

3) Ask a Manager: I’m being mentored against my will by a dude who’s my peer.

4) How 50 Female Characters Were Described in their Screenplays.

5) Patterns among profitable moves budgeted between $3 and $10 million.

6) French Museum Discovers Half of its Collection are Fakes.

7) Vaccines Work: Here are the Facts. (a comic)

Randomness for 3/23

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1) What happens when bookstore employees get bored. This is delightful.

2) The literal translation of every country name in the world.

3) Book Towns: small towns filled with bookstores.

4) Why is English such a weird language?

5) Peanut butter and mayo sandwiches were a thing in the ’60s so we tried it.

6) Telltale Games: creative endeavors in a corporate environment.

7) Beautiful murals from the last remaining Prohibition-era speakeasy in Seattle.

Randomness for 2/21

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1) Longest-standing video game record declared ‘impossible,’ thrown out after 35 years (update)

2) “She wrote it but…” Revisiting Joanna Russ 35 Years Later.

3) All 288 reported concussions of the 2017 NFL season in one video clip.

4) Single Mothers Are Not The Problem.

5) Why We Love Tyrants, according to psychoanalysts

6) What’s the longest train route in the world? Video.

7) Criminals impersonate authors on Amazon to launder their money.

Randomness for the Holidays

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1. Interesting etymology of holiday terms. Video.

1a. The classic holiday story “The Little Match Girl” which I’d never read.

2. Feeding the Poop Log: A Catalan Christmas Tradition.

3. The Tiny Desk Holiday Special.

3a. More Music: Christmas carols performed by goats.

4. Nine Holiday-themed D&D enemies to throw at your players.

4a. Holiday beers.

5. Are poinsettias really poisonous, and other Christmas questions, answered by Science.

6. I judge adaptations of A Christmas Carol by the way they depict the ghosts, and this right here is the perennial winner:

7. Last (and you knew this was coming), if you need a last-minute gift, ebooks like my new Twenty Palaces novella, The Twisted Path, are cheap and easy to deliver.

A Sudden Attack of Common Sense

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Sometimes, common sense sneaks up on me and shakes me out of a stupor. When it does, I tell people.

I’ve just changed the price of The Way into Fate from a set dollar amount to a Pay What You Want system.

What is The Way into Fate? It’s a 50K word-long game supplement that adapts both The Great Way trilogy and A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark into campaign settings for the Fate Core rpg. It includes world building documents, custom rules for adapting non-human species (to make them intelligent and inhuman at the same time) plus scenario ideas and “Invasion at Shadow Hall”, a full-length fantasy adventure set in Kal-Maddum.

If you’re a Fate Core player or GM, the supplement has never been more affordable. If you enjoyed the books and are curious about the nuts and bolts behind them: see previous sentence.

And if you’re gamers who haven’t read the books, maybe the supplements will make them look intriguing.

So, The Way into Fate is Pay What You Want for a not-limited time. Check it out.

Don’t Go into the Basement Unarmed: Reader-mind, Writer-mind, and Role Playing Games

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When I’m reading a book and really enjoying it, I’m in my reader-mind: I’m invested in the character, I want them to do well, I don’t want them to suffer too much or lose anything too precious. I can tell I’m enjoying a book when I wish I could actually enter the story and tell the protagonist what they should do so they stop fucking things up.

In reader-mind, I’m a partisan for the main character

In writer-mind, I’m thinking more about the story as a whole. I (try to) create a character for readers to invest in, then I put them through their paces, running them ragged and making them suffer for the benefit of the story. I have them make mistakes, fail, and screw up in ways that can’t be fixed.

Hopefully, that leads to a hard-won victory that gives the reader something to celebrate. Unless the character is Ray Lilly, and that victory is pyrrhic as hell.

One of the big differences there is control. When I’m in reader-mind, the problems the character faces is wholly out of my control, and that shit can be stressful. In my writer-mind, I’m in complete control, and while I’m making life hell for that perfectly wonderful main character, I know how far I can push things. It’s up to me, and that takes a lot of the stress out of it.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about these two perspectives a lot, mainly because of the role-playing games I’ve been playing lately.

In the old days, when I played D&D (before it became AD&D) and other games later, like The Fantasy Trip or The Morrow Project, I approached the role of GM with the writer-mind. I tried to measure the challenges without making them impossible. Hard-fought, but not impossible.

That could be a challenge, obviously, and those old-school number-crunching games sometimes made it hard to avoid a total party kill, once the scenario was committed. And I can admit it: I wasn’t a great GM.

But when I played a character, I was in reader-mind all the way. I never had the character do anything stupid or illogical, never had them take an action that might screw up their quest, whatever it was. They never rushed in without preparation. Never gave in to foolish temptation. Never trusted anyone likely to be playing the role of traitor in the story.

They never went down into the basement without grabbing a knife from the kitchen first, if you know what I mean.

As I’ve said before, rpgs are storytelling of another kind. Unlike novels or movies, they’re an oral, interactive narrative. And if you played those old-school D&D games, most of the time they were fucking terrible stories. Characters marched down halls in formation, stabbed monsters, searched for treasure, and if they survived, spent it. Often, that became the only goals: gather wealth, go up a level. “There’s a group of bandits stealing from those villagers” was nothing more than a fig leaf over the necessity to put our miniatures on the hex paper.

We made half-hearted efforts to create actual stories in the game, but frankly, we were terrible at it.

That was because the point of the game was not to tell stories, it was to hang out with our friends and make each other laugh. The game was always less important than the people we were playing it with.

However, as boring as these narratives could be, I learned a lot from them. I learned what people expect when they experienced stories with reader-mind. I learned to make the characters as smart and aware as I could.

Essentially, I learned not to have characters in my novels investigate a weird noise in the basement without first stopping for weapons in the kitchen. So to speak.

I still write with the writer-mind in place, but I try to be aware of reader-mind expectations.

Games have changed, though. The last few games our group has played required much more writer-mind perspective from the players. For example, many times our GM will say something like: “Okay. You’re in another dimension. What do you see? Describe it to me.” Everyone in the group is empowered to contribute to the setting and to design NPCs.

That’s something you can’t do if you’re stuck in reader-mind, and think the hellscape surrounding the villain’s stronghold should have a beautiful bridge across it, with napping guards and plenty of fountains for proper hydration.

I confess, that I sometimes struggle with this. I don’t want my characters to get killed every session, but I don’t want to play rpgs on EASY every time, either.

Which brings me to our last session. We’re playing a game called MASKS, which is about a team of teenage superheroes. The characters have power but they’re young and unsure of themselves. They try their best. They make mistakes. And it’s a great game. If you want me to go into details, let me know.

Briefly, here’s where things stood in the game, story-wise: the major villain we were facing was a time-traveling conqueror who, in the distant future, has become powerful enough to rule over every one. Basically, he’s a tyrant who conquered the universe, but no one knew who was really under the mask.

However, we knew he came from Earth and that, in our time, he was a regular guy. He keeps bumping back to our present to influence events, kidnap people, or just villain up the neighborhood. Basically, we were trying to unmask him and identify him, so we could beat him before he became a cosmic-level threat.

Now, since this is a comic book story (and in keeping with the theme we’re often asked to describe what we’re doing in terms of panels) it seemed very likely that the villain was either one of the player characters, or someone we knew. I thought it might be my character, who is a teenage version of Dr. Strange. His history makes him a candidate for turning evil, and when we did finally unmask the time-traveling villain in our last session, I figured there was a 50/50 chance it was my character.

And in my writer-mind, I was mentally prepared for that. It made me unhappy, because I was supposed to be in writer-mind without having the same control I do when I write fiction, but this is how it’s done and I’ve been trying to play the games as best I can.

But it wasn’t my character. It was my friend’s character, and my reader-mind was absolutely not prepared for that.

Here’s the thing about MASKS: the character classes are not defined by power/abilities. Not really. They’re defined by the kinds of stories you tell about them.

For instance, The Janus covers a hero with a demanding secret identity: they have a job, school, money troubles, an Aunt May… The game recommends power sets that work best for each class, but they’re only recommendations. You can play Peter Parker without taking bug powers.

Similarly, if you want to play The Transformed, you don’t have to be a big, strong, left-hook throwing pile of orange rocks like The Thing. But you can still role-play Thing-type stories–the fearful way people react to you, the normal life you can never return to, the whole deal–if that’s what you want.

Weeks ago, as an exercise, I sat down and wrote out the same Deathlok-style hero, with the same powers, for three different classes. Same guy. Same origin. But the changes between one class and another were like different runs by different writers on a long-running comic. It was just a change of tone and style.

One of the character classes that lets you play someone like Raven, from Teen Titans. (Her dad is a super-powerful demon who plans to invade the Earth, and the team helps her keep him at bay. But the danger is always there.) The playbook for that character class is The Doomed and it suits any hero who is the child of demons, scout for a race of alien invaders, etc.

Now you would think, logically–I mean, logically–that it would be obvious to me that a character who is called, literally, DOOMED in the game, would be a prime candidate to be overwhelmed by an evil force and turned into our deadliest enemy. You would think that.

But I never saw it coming, and here’s why:

On the character sheet for The Doomed, under the section “Advancements” (which is a bit like leveling up, except some advancements are plot beats you unlock) I could see RIGHT THERE on the page was an advancement called: “Confront your doom on your own terms; if you survive, change playbooks.”

Which is a way of saying “Your character wins over their mortal enemy and can become any hero you want them to be.”

When I saw that on the character sheet, I thought: “I can’t wait to play out that moment.” My reader-mind wanted my friend’s character to win the day. I was blinded by the expectation that he would get a happy ending. It never occurred to me that we wouldn’t get to play that scene.

I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with all this, except to say that the games people make now are wildly superior to what we played in my junior high days in the seventies.

Also, it’s been really hard to keep my reader-mind in check when my writer-mind should be working. It’s also hard to stay in writer-mind when so much control of the narrative has been ceded to the other players. Old habits, I guess.

Even when I’m ready to put my own character through it, I’m still rooting for the rest of the team.

Randomness for 6/19

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1. Cracked makes an honest ad about the ways casual games are like crack for our brains. Video.

2. Chatbots built by Facebook engineers to negotiate with each other begin to develop their own non-human language. Time to re-watch Person of Interest.

3. Having power causes a degradation of certain mental functions.

4. M.C. Esher: Adventures in Perception: a 20 minute Dutch documentary about the way he created his work. Video.

5. Are paintings that mimic photographs more “realistic” than paintings from before photography was invented?

6. How to build a bicycle with car tires for wheels.

7. The same song played on a $100 bass, a $700 bass, and a $10,000 bass. Which sounds best? Video.

Randomness for 6/10

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1) Author Robert Jackson Bennet on raising kids who don’t give a shit about your nerd pop culture.

2) Scientists have eliminated HIV in mice using CRISPR.

3) An episode of 80’s Dungeons and Dragons cartoon with voiceover to make it seem like a real D&D session. Video.

4) A bucket of water with a camera in the bottom captures thirsty desert animals. Video.

5) My Family’s Slave. This is heartbreaking and awful.

6) How to remove unwanted shows from your Netflix algorithms. Maybe your ex cruelly favorited an Adam Sandler movie before dumping you. Maybe you didn’t think to create a separate account for yourself after a few drinks. Maybe you just have regrets.

7) Four people who were buried alive and how they got out. Spoiler: “knocking” plays a big role.