December 31, 2011

A New Year's Tale

Scene: a new preserves and charcuterie shop in Kensington Market, Toronto. In keeping with the place's friendly vibe, the counter guy tries to engage a customer in conversation. The customer, in his mid 50s, dressed in a natty overcoat, sits on a bench eating the sandwich he's just been served.

COUNTER GUY: Do you have any plans for New Year's?

CUSTOMER: [has a mouthful of sandwich, unable to talk.]

COUNTER GUY: Any special plans?

CUSTOMER: [indicates that he's eating and can't reply]

COUNTER GUY: Anything special you're doing for New Year's?

CUSTOMER: [rising] My wife wants to divorce me, because of my girlfriend.

December 23, 2011

Sleigh Bell Sign-Off

The presents are wrapped, the Christmas pudding cooked, and it’s time once again for my holiday sign-off. As visions of sugar plums dance in my head, I’d like to thank everyone for hanging out here, or dropping in from your redoubts at Twitter, Google+, and Facebook. I’ve been grateful for your attention as I launched Ashen Stars and The Worldwound Gambit. Hamlet's Hit Points, released in 2010, continues to find new readers, which pleases me to no end, proving that a labor of love can make good in our long tail world.

The big news here on the blog was my pre-Gen Con flight from Livejournal to Blogger. The latter’s better analytics and the immediate success of Google+, have helped me to keep the joint alive as eyeballs shift from blogs to social networks. Highlights of the year in blogging include the wrap-up of the Korad world-building experiment, a Kovalic-led encounter with a classic Wisconsin smelt fry and its requisite brandy old-fashioneds, a two-pronged assault on creative paralysis, and a Cthulhoid victory in the annual Gen Con buzzword competition, and the traditional TIFF Capsule Reviews. Together we hated on haters, reconsidered secrecy, and feared the rising of the dread mascots.

I’ll be back in the new year to keep you updated on Hillfolk and The Gaean Reach, to share the scoop on new fiction projects, and to kick off the impending “Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff” podcast. With a US election cycle fully swinging, I may dare to disturb the dusty padlock on the Politics Hut. How To Design RPGs the Robin Laws Way will resume, as will the usual talk about movies, narrative, writing and the gun-toting despond of deadpan avians.

Until then, enjoy or survive, as the case may be, your holiday time with friends and family. Imbibe judiciously and beware of road hazards, whether they consist of black ice, drunk guys, or Heat Misers.

Merry Christmas, Internet!

December 22, 2011

See P. XX

Down the non-Euclidean chimney comes Santa Cthulhu with a big bag of year-end See P. XX. Find the sneak peek at the Shotguns v. Cthulhu cover amid sundry other gifts from Pelgrane Press:

  • My column on information flow in GUMSHOE.

  • The horoscope of the mysteriously dead Augustus Darcy, occultist author famed for The Book of Smoke.

  • The conspyramid contest for Night’s Black Agents.

  • Winners and answers for the Cthulhu Apocalypse contest.

  • New releases and a peek at Pelgrane’s 2012 slate.

All gather round the eldritch fireplace!

December 21, 2011

Ironic Hero, Absurdist Villain

If an iconic hero remains true to himself and thereby changes the world around him, the ironic hero hews to his inner compass and is disappointed by the way the world changes despite him. We don’t see the ironic hero much in fiction, because that pattern is too much like life.

As is apt for a playwright, the life of Vaclav Havel divides readily into three acts—from avant garde dramatist to dissident to head of state. In that third act, he becomes an ironic hero. The act begins with heady early days, scored to deep Zappa cuts, as he strives to infuse his office with an artist’s humanism. From these scenes of bohemian promise, the story shifts tones. He presides as a constitutionally weak President over a society quickly bored by his ideals. Despite his efforts, his country splits in two. He urges the dismantlement of the lucrative Czech arms industry, and is rebuffed. Havel remains a hero to the outside world, and certainly to me. To the home audience, not so much. Heroes get tiresome when they stick around too long. We prefer them when they to ride off into sunset in timely fashion.

The ironic hero is sadder than the tragic hero, and leaves the stage without catharsis. The tragic hero falls from greatness, brought low by his telling flaws. The ironic hero fades, due to ours.

In a bid to provide easy contrast for blog posts, Kim Jong Il died on the same day as Havel. By immiserating an entire nation and killing millions by famine in order to maintain his cult of personality, he leaves a legacy as one of the era’s most monstrous real-life villains. The scale of his crimes makes him almost too monstrous for fiction. Another of his qualities definitely disqualifies him as a fictional bad guy—despite his enormous body count, he was as ridiculous as he was menacing. This is a consistent trope of the modern mega-mass-murdering dictator. Comic characters become funny through a gap between self-perception and the way others see them. Mussolini, Gaddafi, and Saddam Hussein all embodied not just the banality but the absurdity of evil. It’s not always the case—Pol Pot managed to be straight-up sinister, and the publicity-shy goons running Burma are no barrel of yuks. Kim, however, might have been a character in one of Havel’s allegorical plays.

December 20, 2011

A Contrary Life

A motif emerges in friends’ reminiscences of the alternately brilliant and maddening Christopher Hitchens. At some point they all have to note that they didn’t agree with Hitchens on everything. In fact his barbed-wire views were so various, so untethered from standard ideological allegiances, that it is mathematically impossible to agree with all of them.

Many of the tributes mull the question of whether Hitchens was, in the end, a man of the left or right. If you go by the degree of discomfort eulogists of both factions display toward him, he winds up on the left. His liberal friends may have a tough time accepting his unrepentant touting of the Iraq conflict, but that pales compared to conservative distaste for his atheism and general loathing for hierarchy. Lots of young Trotskyites wound up as neoconservatives. Hitchens didn't so much discard one for the other as fuse the impulses together, with ferocity of judgment the bonding agent.

Admiring individual contrarians, as opposed to contrarianism itself, can be a fraught business. When summoning a pithy Mencken quote one has to keep in mind his pro-German sentiments in the lead-up to WWII. In late career, the contrarian may reveal himself not as an all-around puncturer of fuzzy thinking, but a much less interesting creature, the hedonistic Tory.

Still, one can look to figures like Hitchens and Mencken for the aspiration to question assumed truths, and to pursue logical propositions to their pitiless conclusions. To defend itself, even a culture of empathy needs the ability to construct an argument. Relying on cant or empty pieties leaves you only able to sputter when challenged. What does not kill your argument makes it stronger.

No matter how intense a detractor one might be of one Hitchens stance or another, the techniques he uses are transferable to the support of any position based on facts and reason.

If you look at him as a practitioner of the vanishing art of debate, his weak arguments become as informative as his strong ones. There you see the dodges you might skewer when deployed against you. In neocon mode, Hitchens cheats wildly, engaging his opponents’ worst arguments or resorting to untestable counterfactual assertions. This is where you see his twin passions, his hatred of tyranny and religion, combining to overwhelm the skepticism that anchors his best polemical writing.

I certainly envy the legendary Hitchens recall—virtually everything he read went straight to the memory bank and stayed there. As someone who makes his living as a writer, I can only gasp at his mammoth output, mysteriously squeezed into days given over to the voracious pursuit of Johnny Walker-fueled conversation. One account clocks him at a hard-to-credit 10,000 words per day—all the more staggering when you consider time spent on reading and other research.

With his prodigious intake of Scotch and cigarette smoke, Christopher Hitchens embodied the romantic image of the hard-drinking, hard-typing man of letters. I’m happy to identify with that so long as I don’t have to do it. His early death from esophageal cancer illustrates the real-life hazards of that image. As any contrarian knows, being a romantic figure is a dangerous business.

December 17, 2011

[Classic Post] Christmas Pudding

As a backstop against information catastrophe, I assign to Internet posterity the ineffable taste of the season.

Grandma Hannaford’s Christmas Pudding
1/2 cup shortening
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
1 cup flour
3 eggs
1 cup soda cracker crumbs
1 tsp salt (scant)
1/2 tsp soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp allspice
1/2 cup Welch’s grape juice
1/8 cup brandy (plus plenty to soak fruit in)
1 1/2 cup raisins
3/4 cup currants
3/4 cup dates, cut up
1 cup glacee cherries
1/8 cup mixed peel
1 package slivered almonds
10 oz. can crushed pineapple

Blog PuddingThe night before, soak raisins, currants, dates and cherries in brandy.

Cream shortening, brown and white sugar.

Beat in eggs.

Mix dry ingredients: flour, cracker crumbs, salt, soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice.

Add dry ingredients to wet.

Mix in brandy and grape juice, then soaked fruit and almonds.

Spoon mixture into greased cans, leaving a couple of inches for expansion. Place cans on racks in a pan of water. Cans should not be immersed. (As with so much else in this extremely forgiving recipe, the size of the can doesn’t hugely matter; I tend to use 19 ouncers.)

Cook at 300F for 1 hour, then 275F for 2 hours. Replenish water as needed.

White Sauce For Pudding
1/2 cup white sugar
1 generous tbsp flour
1/2 cup milk
1 egg
2 tbsp butter
1/2 tsp vanilla

Beat egg white to stiff peak.

Thoroughly mix sugar and flour in heavy saucepan. Stir in milk and egg yolk. Add butter. Bring to a boil on medium heat, stirring constantly to prevent scorching. Boil for 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Add vanilla. Fold mixture into beaten egg white.

Can be served hot or cold. However, the former choice is, in the opinion of the transcriber, utter blasphemy.

There is also a hot caramel sauce. In the words of my mother, “That’s just brown sugar melted in water, isn’t it?” Unless I'm completely mistaken, there's now no one left in the family who prefers the hot sauce on the pudding, though my dad always has it on its own.

December 16, 2011

Hillfolk of London

On my return from London, the players in the ongoing Hillfolk game wanted a full report on what went down in the one-shot I ran for the Pelgrane crew, pre-Dragonmeet. Who were their alternate universe counterparts, and what did they get up to? As the game moves into outside playtesting, it’s an issue I’ll be looking at with curiosity. Are there a near-infinite number of different Hillfolk casts, or are there common parallels between the various groups?

I expect considerable overlap in the roles players choose for their characters within their villages. A raider clan at the dawn of the iron age offers only so many conceivable important roles. Greater variation is possible when it comes to dramatic poles. But will we see it?

For a refresher, the poles of the in-house crew are here.

By contrast, here’s what the London players came up with.



Dramatic Poles


Owner of many flocks

Family vs. Tribe



Greed vs. Generosity



Healer vs. Raider



Bravery vs. Self-Preservation



Inspiration vs. Madness



Duty vs. Fulfillment

Even the roles varied a good bit, with only two overlaps. Between the two groups there appeared some similar poles, but no exact matches.

In play, I’d say that Foxface’s dramatic poles wound up being Stickler vs. Helper, and that Lionclaw’s poles also became Duty vs. Fulfillment. This might be only fitting, as both he and Bigback pursued a forbidden love for Rootgrinder, the wife of Skyrancher—and stepmother to Bigback.

December 15, 2011

Core Activity and the Generic RPG

Or, How To Design RPGs the Robin Laws Way (Part 2 of several; see part one for introduction and disclaimer)

Professor Coldheart asks how the core activity comes into play in the case of a generic rules set:

How does the above mesh with designing a setting-free or generic RPG? I'm thinking of the last iteration of Heroquest, which was divorced from the Glorantha setting. Also, I presume DramaSystem might see a standalone book at some point after Hillfolk is released. It would appear that these don't have a "core activity" as you define it - or do they?

With a single notable exception, generic rules sets appear as follow-up products to existing games. Hero grew out of Champions. D20 Modern was an alternate D&D build designed in part to show the system’s flexibility. Like Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying, they may serve as reference documents for GMs who will use them as a basis for their own games. They are a chassis on which the game is built; it remains incomplete until someone creates the core activity for it.

HeroQuest might be described as a hybrid of both models. It serves as a reference document showing you how to build your series, effectively enlisting the GM a collaborator in a simple game design process. At the same time, it’s as much a supplement to previous iterations as a new and improved version of the rules. And with its Glorantha chapter, which arose from the realization that most people buying the game would be using it in its established world, it backgrounds but still expresses the classic Hero Wars/HeroQuest 1 core activity: you play heroes fighting to shape the turning of an age in a world where myth takes on fantastic reality.

Skulduggery likewise grows out of The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game and exists as a reference document (preserving that game’s system at a time when it seemed like Pelgrane would not continue the license) and a blueprint for making your own Skulduggery mini-games. Although it has done rather better than Simon expected, it was never expected to become a flagship game the way DERPG once was, or Trail of Cthulhu has become.

Implicit in this approach is the argument that generic games are a hard sell, both to customers and to players. That’s why the first DramaSystem game will be called Hillfolk and not DramaSystem, and will present itself on the basis of the core activity. Even if we wind up including additional settings in an extended appendix. Otherwise we’re trying to get you to adopt a game that communicates on an intellectual level but lacks an emotional hook. Even the issue of visual presentation depends on a core activity, from which the graphic designer and illustrators can tweak the imagination and weave an arresting look. The rules are so short and simple that they can reappear in follow-up products without raising buyer ire.

The aforementioned exception is, of course, GURPS. It essentially marketed itself on the strength of its design throughline. It was the one game where the core activity legitimately could be “You can do anything!” Again the supplements become the games that elaborate the rules chassis into a playable experience. This was possible at the time because it addressed a gap both in the market and in the state of the art. No one had done a ground-up design meant to be generic from the jump, as opposed to the usual serial iterations of a core rules system. Having filled that gap, it removed the necessity for anyone else to attempt the same. Thus the return to the iterative model.

This has gone long, and there are still some more questions to cover. Let me know if you’d prefer that I steam ahead, or stop along the way to answer queries like this one.

December 14, 2011

It’s Okay Till the Russians Do It

With Kenneth Hite’s GUMSHOE vampire spy thriller Night’s Black Agents now percolating out into the gamer bloodstream, you may be seeking resources for your real-life geopolitical chasing and shooting needs.

One site to bookmark is In Moscow’s Shadows, the blog of Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia’s criminal underworld, its national security apparatus, and the intersections between the two. (If the name sounds familiar, you may know Mark from his secret identity as a stalwart of the Glorantha community and author of the Mythic Russia RPG.) Watch also for his column, Siloviks and Scoundrels, in the Moscow News.

An example of the blog’s NBA utility can be found in this recent round-up of the various police and security forces we may see deployed if the anti-Putin protests escalate.

December 12, 2011

Branches and Consequences

Cosmicgoose is back with another question. If I may take the liberty of paraphrasing (and I may, because this is my blog and here there is no law save for my iron will) he asks:

In Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering, you talk about possible story branches from the characters' success and failure, and how it helps to think ahead about what these might be. In the case of failure, should you plan for characters to suffer additional negative consequences, or is the sting of losing bad enough?

Ideally, you want some but not all failures to bring about lingering negative consequences, and some but not all successes to bring positive ones. In a compelling ongoing story, those consequences arise directly from the story and make themselves self-evident. If you fail to claim the island you sailed for, you lose the queen's favor. If you succeed in capturing the magic sword, you now get to use it against your opponents.

To complicate the equation, sometimes successes ought to provoke negative side consequences, emulating the costly victory: you take the hill, but with heavy casualties. Likewise, a failure might, in a surprising twist, lead somewhere helpful. You get beaten up and captured, in the process learning something about the bad guy's plan.

Too few consequences and a session's episodes seem weightless and disconnected from one another. However, if every event brings about a lasting outcome, they will pile up and bog down the developing storyline. After a while, you and your players find it hard to come up with fresh ideas for consequences. It becomes difficult not only to bring all of them into play, but simply remember them all.

Some of my game rules tell you, as part of the resolution system, when consequences attend to an action. HeroQuest and DramaSystem both do this. During in-house testing for the latter, I had to junk any early version of the procedural system because too often led to a single result—player victory, with a negative consequence. Having fixed that, they crop up enough to add interest and weight, but not so often that the weight becomes burdensome.

December 09, 2011

That Tagline Earned Him Three Refresh Tokens

“You lost a good opportunity to shut up.”

Upon hearing that Nicholas Sarkozy recently said this to David Cameron, the obvious became evident: the current Euro rescue talks are a Skulduggery play pack waiting to happen.

You play leaders of European nations attempting to prevent an implosion of the continental and/or global economy while at the same time pursuing your localized political goals. Sadly, that font of comedy inspiration, Silvio Burlesconi, has decamped for the moment, but there’s no shortage of potential PCs. Where the restructuring effort is concerned, the Sarkozy player aims to divert the burden to Germany and the credit to France. Straight-laced Angela Merkel must ensure that everyone but the German banks pays for their irresponsible loans. Cameron plays to Euro-Skeptics back home. Whoever’s running Greece this week complains about taxes he has no intention of paying.

European readers whose leaders have not been mentioned above are invited to characterize their underlying goals for the scenario.

It’s a natural for your holiday pick-up gaming!

December 08, 2011

The Two Fundamental Elements of RPG Design

Or, How To Design RPGs the Robin Laws Way (Part One of Several)

I've been asked to describe my process of RPG design, so let's kick off what will surely be a series of posts illuminated by your further questions. Should this need be said, this is my process and not a commandment for others to do likewise. If it sometimes seems like I'm making Olympian pronouncements it's because qualifiers are boring and I will have no truck with them.

Sometimes I pitch a game to a publisher (Feng Shui, Mutant City Blues, Ashen Stars); other times I am presented with a brief and asked to develop an approach (The Esoterrorists, Rune, HeroQuest.) The distinction between these two starting points is not always clear-cut.

The first step is to refine the initial brief, by identifying the design throughline and the core activity. Without the second, resulting game will be hard to pitch to gamers and to play. Without the first, it has little reason to exist in the first place.

The core activity I've talked about before. It tells you who the characters are and what they're doing. You're heroes fighting to shape the turning of an age in a world where myth takes on fantastic reality. You play troubleshooters for hire on a war-ravaged fringe of an interstellar empire. You lead an isolated tribe of raiders at the dawn of the iron age.

The design throughline is the central concept underlying game play, and your reason for creating a new rules set (to the extent that you are.) The game evokes the spirit of Jack Vance's stories of the Dying Earth. Or streamlines investigative play, so that the solution to mysteries depends not on finding clues but putting them together. Or provides a simple framework for the building of dramatic storylines.

December 06, 2011

Lowering Cain

I enjoy observing politics—that is, the politics of nearby other countries whose results I suffer only indirectly —as a venue for real-life drama, of clashing personalities and personal flaws heightened by stakes and pressure.

When it comes to men of power, no flaw is more classical than hubris. It takes that and chutzpah, too, to know that you’ve been carrying on a long-term affair and had a series of sexual harassment claims filed against you, and to think that you can run for President without either of these things coming to light. You might think that the solipsistic miscalculation of a Herman Cain is somehow off the charts. And it is, insofar as it got him hoisted from nominal front-runner to footnote.

According to this podcast interview, of controversial Republican campaign manager Ed Rollins, conducted by Alec Baldwin, hubris might almost be a prerequisite of the mindset required to run. [Engage paraphrase engines!] Rollins says that the first thing a would-be campaign manager asks a prospective candidate is if they have any skeletons in their closet. And they all lie.

(The seasoned campaign manager, Rollins continues, knows this and hires a private investigator to dig up the truth on his own client, as it will otherwise come out from an unfriendly source, timed at the worst possible moment.)

True tragic heroes must not only be afflicted with the flaw that brings about their downfall—they must also embody greatness, lending piteous significance to the final plummeting. In an age of political cable and radio, a candidate can get close to the sun free of that pesky quality. Instead he can shape himself into a hot button cartoon character, vivid enough for TV but without the dimension for drama, and rise at least to the level of primary contender. At first blush, this seems to add entertainment value to the proceedings. But as Aristotle might tell us, it’s not as profound when the players come pre-satirized.

December 05, 2011

All the Investigative Men

Rewatching Zodiac recently, I was struck by the desire to see David Fincher similarly tackle the Mothman incidents of 1966-1967. This is no swipe at Mark Pellington’s The Mothman Prophecies, which I quite like for the way it evokes the enveloping paranoia of paranormal inquiry. It does, however, impose a cinematic structure and sense of resolution on a series of bizarre incidents distinctive for their lack of either quality. Zodiac, however, stands as a masterpiece of negative capability, focusing as it does on a mystery that seems explicable but always tantalizingly out of reach.

I then happened to move onto the underrated Breach, the 2007 film about the apprehension of FBI mole Robert Hanssen. Although investigation occurs in the background, the dramatic action focuses on the relationship between Hanssen (Chris Cooper, in a brilliant performance) and the young agent assigned to get close to him by acting as his assistant.

The two movies share a stylistic touchstone: All the President’s Men, the classic recreation of the Woodward and Bernstein investigation into the Watergate break-in. Zodiac even employs its composer, David Shire. Alan J. Pakula’s brilliant direction wrings incredible suspense out of simple phone calls, in the heroes press reluctant witnesses to cough up essential scraps of information.

Throughout the film, we see Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, as the two protagonists, use a full range of GUMSHOE-esque interpersonal investigative abilities. Like Mutant City Blues or Ashen Stars characters, who must not only figure out what’s going on but be able to prove it, they have to confirm what they know by wringing confirmations from multiple sources. We see them use Flattery, Flirting, Bureaucracy, Inspiration, Reassurance, and even a touch of Intimidation. Bullshit Detector comes out as official denials are issued. They also use social discomfort to get information out of people. By simply refusing to take no for an answer, or to do the polite thing and go away, they exert a subtle pressure on their sources, one distinct from real Intimidation. A journalism-focused GUMSHOE iteration might add this as a new interpersonal ability—perhaps called something like Journalistic Chutzpah.

December 02, 2011


When seen as concept drawings or CGI animations, Wenlock and Mandeville, the mascots of the upcoming London Olympics, look merely bizarre. As if they, like the 2012 logo, sprang from an advertising agency in-joke run disastrously out of hand. Or perhaps resulted from a concerted effort to create the most peculiar and unrelatable mascots in sports history. However, now that they're all over the city of London in plush toy form, their Lovecraftian heritage becomes all too apparent. I mean, one of them has a head full of tentacles, for Hastur's sake!

Over the course of Dragonmeet, Ken, Simon, Steve Dempsey and I strove to pin down their exact rugose branch of the Cthulhoid family tree. Finally, over tagine and rosé, we worked it out. Wenlock and Mandeville can only be an advance delegation of the insane flautists who orbit around Azathoth, reflecting back on him in atonal, aural form his limitless madness. In other words, I think we'd better check the alignment of the stars for ominous coincidence with the date of next summer's opening or closing ceremonies. I wasn't placing any credence in this whole Mayan end date business, until I saw at bin full of these fuzzy horrors by the exit to Foyle's bookshop.

November 30, 2011

Dragonmeet Panel Audio

The fine, rugose folks at Yog Radio have kindly supplied to a waiting public a surprisingly clear audio recording of the “Ken and Robin and Simon Talk About Stuff” panel from Dragonmeet 2011. Hear us discuss new Pelgrane hotness, flintpunk, the deceptive allure of a GUMSHOE compendium, the psychology of the point spend, and more.

Also, check out Paul of Cthulhu’s interview with Ken and Simon.

November 29, 2011

In Which I Accidentally Survive

Check out the latest edition of the Accidental Survivors podcast, wherein I am interviewed about DramaSystem, tailoring RPG design to the material, the differences between gaming work and fiction, and the genesis of projects from GURPS Fantasy II to GUMSHOE, and more. We wrap with a discussion of Aki Kaurismaki, Werner Herzog, and 3D cave paintings.

Put it in your ears!

November 28, 2011

See P. XX

In a burst of understandable pre-Dragonmeet zeal, High Pelgrane Simon Rogers dropped the latest issue of the See P. XX on American Thanksgiving, an event many of you surely missed on account of turkey-induced torpor. Said zeal provoked him to unleash a veritable floodgate's worth of columns by your humble correspondent:

  • How to do costly successes with GUMSHOE's information-gathering mechanic

  • How the game's ability to get information into character hands makes mysteries richer

  • Plus a round-up of GUMSHOE GM troubleshooting

Is that all? Of course not! We get some Ashen Stars actual play, Will Hindmarch's intro to the new GUMSHOE game he's doing for Evil Hat, and a WWII Trail of Cthulhu setting from Michael Daumen. As always Simon updates us on the progress of myriad projects, And the Black Book GUMSHOE character generator makes its debut.

Go there now!

November 27, 2011

Dragon Met, Despite Planned Service Disruptions

LONDON  — Never mind local authorities’ scheme to add a puzzling extra dimension to Ken and Robin’s tube journey to Kensington High Street with a shutdown of the Circle line. Once more we triumphantly descended upon Kensington Town Hall to chat, sign autographs, and generally hold court. Dragonmeet is an event that bubbles along nicely at its maximum current capacity. It could perhaps grow by renting a bigger facility—or for that matter, more space in its present venue—but this is central London we’re talking, so that’s prohibitively expensive. Keeping the participation at about 600 attendees lends it a sense of a comfy reassembly of the tribe. I saw many familiar faces and in certain instances successfully connected them to their familiar names.

Speaking of facility limits, I took part in only one panel this year, a Q&A formatted round-up of all matters Pelgrane. I talked DramaSystem, the potential pitfalls of a GUMSHOE compendium, and how to get your players to key into investigative spends. Simon tantalized the crowd with two potential blockbuster Trail of Cthulhu supplements from Ken. Both aroused palpable booklust, with Pulp China scoring a clear edge over Southern Gothic. Assuming that Paul of Cthulhu’s sacrifices to the audio gods were all in good order, a recording of this talk should become available in the proper fullness of time.

As always, Dragonmeeters, it was a pleasure to catch up with you, and I hope for the continuance of this developing tradition.

November 26, 2011

A Clan Gathered For Conquest

LONDON – Last night there was feasting, both by the hard-bitten peoples of the craggy Southlands, and by the assembled Pelgranistas playing them in a rousing game of Hillfolk. One group got more sticky toffee pudding than the other.

This was my first time grappling with the one-shot format for the game, which in general is tuned for extended play. I wondered how much intervention on my part would be required to make it work in this format and decided to play it by ear. As is its wont, the game subtly did our work for us, creating a dynamic that escalated naturally into a climactic struggle over clan leadership. The session will help enormously in writing the convention run section of the final rule book. It also has me thinking that the way the current manuscript suggests kicking off the series is too interventionist, and that the players may be better left to their own devices.

Speaking of which, it’s time to navigate a partially closed tube system on an eerily balmy late November London weekend, and hie ourselves to Dragonmeet. Looking forward to a fine gathering of another wild clan—though perhaps without quite so much iron age sturm und drang.

November 23, 2011

Premise Concealment and the Overvaluation of Secrecy

D&D’s status as the progenitor of roleplaying as we know it has sometimes led RPGers to overvalue certain of its elements. Or rather, to adopt in their entirety bits that absolutely apply to the core activity of D&D but don’t automatically translate to all others.

For example, the baseline assumption has always been that you roll to see if you get information because that works really well in a game where you’re going down into dungeons, killing monsters, and taking their stuff. Should you fail to detect a secret door, you can always find another door to bash down instead. If you don’t find the treasure hidden in the hollow in the portico, them’s the breaks.

This assumption doesn’t carry over into a game where the core activity is solving a mystery of whatever stripe. It leads to the bottlenecks and workarounds GUMSHOE was designed to eliminate.

Secrecy in general works splendidly in D&D. In the old school days, you had the mystique of the map, which the GM has hidden in front of them, and which the players must painstakingly strive to replicate. The physical process of making the map marks the group’s collective progress in killing the monsters and taking their stuff. The world in general is a giant question mark, which you whittle away at by exploring.

This has led us to overvalue secrecy in general. One extreme manifestation comes with the campaign that withholds even its premise from the group. The GM tells you only to create modern-day, more or less ordinary characters. When you show up to play, you learn, as your characters discover their true situation, what the core activity of the game is.

If you have fun running or playing under this set-up, I’m sure not going to tell you that you’re not. However, you might want to ask yourself how much of that fun occurs due to this arrangement, and how much comes in spite of it.

First, let’s face it. Once you’ve been around the block, the surprise isn’t so surprising anymore. Your players know the premise, mostly. They’re almost invariably signing up for a survival horror game—perhaps with aliens, fellow survivors or mundane soldiers in place of the default supernatural entities. If not, you’re playing a superhero game in which they all develop powers during the first sessions. Even when players are truly surprised, the benefit lasts only for a chunk of the first session, while the costs linger for the remainder of the series.

Second, by separating the core activity from character creation, this style of play reduces collaboration and shifts the narrative burden onto the GM. The GM must keep the plot machinery constantly turning to keep his random cast of PCs engaged, rather than inviting players to suggest their own compelling, personal reasons to take part in the core activity. For a dominant GM and passive players, the withheld premise may work out fine. With one or more resistant/defensive players, you'll get turtling. When you’re lucky, active players improvise connections to the core activity on the fly, back-engineering the decisions they would have made when conceiving their characters. Otherwise they may discover that their PCs frustrate them, leading them to ditch them in favor of replacements tailored for the now-revealed campaign premise.

November 22, 2011

Back To Browning

Unless they’re also paying attention to what’s being marketed to the art house crowd, fans of horror cinema may not have Pedro Almodovar’s latest, The Skin I Live In, on their radar screens. Nonetheless, you may see no film more deeply steeped in the horror tradition this year. Almodovar has in the past channeled such filmmakers as Douglas Sirk and George Cukor. Here he goes to the well of Tod Browning for a tale of obsession, madness, and body distortion. Insane scientist Antonio Banderas, abetted by his suspiciously loyal maid, keeps captive the beautiful subject of a forbidden medical experiment. If you doubt the Browning connection, Exhibit A is the fact that he wanted to shoot the film as a black and white silent. Exhibit B is the secondary villain who shows up wearing a tiger costume.

In North America Almodovar is sometimes seen as as a lighter filmmaker than he is, because we embrace his sunniest works, like Volver and Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Most of his films take a darker tone and take place in a world where passion spills over into sexual menace. His 1986 film Matador, for example, plays as the giallo Luis Buñuel might have imagined.

The Skin I Live In is a compelling exercise in the outre and highly recommended to film-going horroristas.

November 21, 2011

Beer Knowledge Me (London Edition)

As previously and thrillingly recounted in these blog pages, I recently underwent a hopsy conversion on the road to somewhere or other and now find myself a liker of beer.

As likewise announced, this weekend I will once again be jetting to the reserved yet splendid embrace of London, England, for the Dragonmeet convention and related Pelgrane summitry.

A visit to the Pelgrane’s nest largely concerns itself with the free flow of wine, a tradition with which one would be a fool to tamper. But let’s say, for the sake of hypotheticality, that I at some point wind up in a pub. You also, by remarkable coincidence, happen to be in this fine establishment and are either an English enjoyer of beers or an enjoyer of English beers.

If I’m having what you’re having, what am I having?

November 17, 2011

The Three Reveals of Gen Con Meet the Three Updates of November

Hey, Robin, you may be asking, what’s up with those three projects you announced in August? Here’s a progress report. All are looking more winter ‘11-’12 than fall ‘11 at this point. In an event unparalleled in human history, it has transpired that certain elements of a project take longer than initially thought.

I’ve been talking about Hillfolk / DramaSystem a lot in these blog pages. The manuscript is now in great shape for outside playtest. Given the upcoming Christmas rush, it may make more sense to punt this to 2012. Simon Rogers and I have been discussing, and will soon be revealing our crowdfunding approach.

Kenneth Hite has kindly agreed to write the foreword to my book of King in Yellow-inspired fiction, New Tales of the Yellow Sign. The project awaits the moment when he can squeeze this valued and volunteered effort into his fraught schedule.

Speaking of matters Hitean, the third item, the “Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff” podcast, awaits the design of a companion site. We have lovely illustrations in hand from a certain acclaimed and Muskrat-adjacent cartoonist, and a rough sketch of how we want it to look.

So all are still moving ahead. I’ll keep you apprised on each as developments develop.

November 16, 2011

Deceit and DramaSystem

Commenter Carl, over at my See P. XX intro to DramaSystem, asks about the role deceit plays in the game. Is there a mechanism to ensure that characters who are deceived act accordingly?

It depends on whether the interaction is procedural or dramatic. In the first instance, it occurs in pursuit of a pragmatic goal, free of emotional content, with a minor, GM-run character we don’t much care about. In this case you can con the character and he’ll act as if conned.

In general deceit occurs in DramaSystem because the core interactions mimic drama in fiction, which in turn is a condensed version of the way we behave toward one another in real life. One person seeks an emotional payoff from another, and in the process may choose to lie, dissemble, or hoodwink. If you’re playing a dramatic scene, you can make the choice to act as if the character is deceived, or not. Unlike Skulduggery / Dying Earth, the system does not force you to be fooled. This is because the character who acts on false information belongs more to the melodrama than the drama. Drama is about choices; deceit robs characters of true choices. Deceived characters work in drama when they are, perhaps subconsciously, choosing to be lied to. When Lear buys Regan and Goneril’s flattery and rejects Cordelia’s frankness, he is, on one level, fooled. But really he’s allowing himself to be gulled, because he’s petitioning them for ego gratification and wants to get it. In the DramaSystem version of this scene, Lear’s player decides to act as if fooled—he isn’t required to do it by a die roll.

If deception belongs to melodrama, its equivalent in drama is self-deception.

November 15, 2011

A Shout-Out (With Errata)

The gang at the Pulp Gamer podcast tackle Mutant City Blues, GUMSHOE and much more in episode 192. Jason dropped the linked, explicable super powers of the default game setting in favor of the Marvel universe’s jam-packed cavalcade of weirdness, and still got the premise to work.

As I point you to the episode, I do have to pipe up with a small correction. There’s a touch of mis-speaking in the segment, giving the impression that you have to pay investigative points to get core clues in GUMSHOE. Readers familiar with the game already know that investigative point spends only occur to get cool but tangential information or other tangible benefits. Core clues are always available without a spend, fulfilling the game’s purpose of eliminating investigative logjams.

November 11, 2011

Embracing Blow-Off Day

If discipline is the writer’s best friend in any field, it is as crucial in the neo-pulp realm of gaming and genre fiction as a shotgun is during a zombie apocalypse. To make a living on a modest word rate, you can’t let time tick by while you wait for inspiration to strike. You have to sit your butt in the chair and make it happen. If that requires rituals, routines or caffeine to get your brain activity jumpstarted, so be it.

That’s true almost every day. But I’ve found one circumstance where the brain’s demand for a blow-off day must be honored. At the midpoint in any novel, I invariably find that the creative engine goes completely AWOL for a day. I can’t predict exactly when that day will come, except that it will be somewhere around the middle of the first draft. The outlined scene might seem perfectly right and ready to be laid down in prose. I might be riding on the best possible night’s sleep, be in a positive place in my exercise regimen, and otherwise as physically ready as I get. But still the usual uphill battle to get down the first couple of hundred words never leaves the mire. The slogging just gets worse.

I used to try to power through, annoyed by my sudden failure of discipline. Now I realize that the sustained concentration required for a novel demands this rest stop. I have embraced blow-off day. Recognizing it when it comes, and giving my brain the day off, is as much part of the craft and discipline as any other part of the process.

A single-author roleplaying game, like Ashen Stars, is certainly longer than a genre-sized novel. But it entails enough task-switching to keep the creative wheels greased without calling a one-day strike. The starship combat chapter requires different muscles than the GM advice chapter, while the scenario represents yet another change of pace. A long fiction work draws from the same well, day after day.

My blow-off day on my current, unannounced novel came on Friday. I saw that it was coming and headed downtown to check out the delightful new Aki Kaurismaki movie, Le Havre. When I got back to the manuscript on Monday I had my flow back. Also, I saw a great scene that ought to have gone before the one that was stopping me short.

You can’t go lateral as an excuse not to work. But sometimes, in order to work, you have to go lateral.

November 10, 2011

Grimm Tidings

Where Mutant City Blues nerdtropes the police procedural by mashing it up with the superhero genre, the new NBC series Grimm does the same thing with a dose of urban fantasy. In the premise-establishing first episode, police detective Nick Burckhardt discovers that he’s a hereditary fighter of evil creatures obliquely referenced in fairy tales. With his partner Hank Griffin and acerbic new wolfman pal Eddie Monroe, he investigates mysteries involving his ancestral foes.

In GUMSHOE terms, Nick clearly has a bespoke investigative ability called Grimm Sight, a sort of supernatural version of Bullshit Detector that allows him to detect people who are disguised supernatural beings, but only when they’re under stress.

Over the course of the first two episodes, we’ve also seen the following abilities provide additional insight, or act as core clues bringing on new scenes:

Nick: Cop Talk, Forensic Psychology, Inspiration, Reassurance

Hank: Anthropology, Data Retrieval, Evidence Collection, Research

Eddie: Occult Studies

In the case of Hank’s Anthropology, we see the classic justification for a needed ability that seems outside the character conception. Down-to-earth cop Hank, after identifying an exotic tribal artifact, explains to his partner that his second wife was an anthropologist.

After two episodes, it’s hard to guess if the series will make good on its early potential as a fun blend of recognizable formulas. I am however looking forward to seeing what else is on these guys’ character sheets.

November 09, 2011


Sarah Darkmagic brings to gamerdom an ongoing discussion highlighting the ambient level of misogynistic rage women encounter when they make themselves known on the Internet.

It would be nice to believe that the sense of community we feel at gaming events, and the hobby’s aura of relative innocence, protect us from having to deal with predators, creeps and abusers. Really the surprise is that we don’t have it worse. Gaming, providing as it does a structured form of personal interaction, has always offered a haven to folks flummoxed by social demands others take for granted. They certainly aren’t the only gaming constituency. Most graduate from this phase, sometimes with the help of a lot of d20s, and move on with their lives.

But among the socially marginalized, there is a smaller slice still who are that way for a reason—because they’re so emotionally stunted, frustrated and consumed with bitterness that they can only reach out by lashing out. We can’t be welcoming to the shy and gloriously eccentric without also drawing in a certain percentage of the truly messed-up.

Hate mail is nothing new, but the net lends verbal assault a global audience and one-touch convenience. My assumption is that this hate impulse is more or less the same, no matter who’s being targeted. The hate junkie types the most vicious stuff he can think of. When it’s a man going after a woman, the language of sexual menace is only too readily at hand. Does it matter that some of these losers are moved to hate by their inability to connect with women in real life, while others some conduct their harassment in a calculating and impersonal way?

It would, I guess, if this were a problem solvable through exhortation, peer pressure, or other forms of social suasion. But hate junkies have already exempted themselves from the social grid, or have never managed to get onto it in the first place. I imagine that a surprising number are closet cases: able to show apparent empathy in their day-to-day dealings, but turning into covert, touch-typing Mr. Hydes with the blinds drawn and the computer booted up.

Misogynistic harassment, like other outflows of hate addiction, is the vengeance of the emotionally marginalized. We can speak up to offer solidarity and support to those subjected to it. I just wish that awareness campaigns, formal or otherwise, stood a chance of getting through to those who spew the stuff.

November 07, 2011

Essential Elements of a Player Character

A question over the transom from blog reader The Cosmic Goose:

When you sit down to create a new character, be it for a story or game, what aspects do you consider core to that character’s persona? Its emotional and spiritual, so to speak: the place from which the character moves, that influences their choices and decision making process? Background is certainly a part of this, but I find that its almost an afterthought. Background tells you why the character is the way he is, but not the more basic question of what or who he is. This is all from a gaming perspective, of course.

As the truism goes, Cosmic, character is action. We experience a character through what he does and, to a lesser extent (in forms that allow for interior monologue) thinks.

So to create an interesting gaming character you have to have some sense, broadly speaking, of what he is going to do. This is why it is so crucial for an RPG to come with a built-in default activity: exploring the spaceways, rectifying paradoxes in the timeline, solving eldritch mysteries, or killing monsters and taking their stuff. If your GM hasn’t clarified what your character will be doing, find out before you create him.

(An older school of roleplaying would have it that the willingness to undermine the game’s core activity represents true dedication to characterization. This “my character wouldn’t do that” syndrome came about for a particular set of historical reasons I may talk about later, but by now has clearly established itself as dysfunctional.)

So, knowing what your character is going to do, find as compelling, unique and urgent a reason to have him do that as you can. In certain GUMSHOE games, this is hardcoded into the character creation system as the character’s Drive, allowing you to grab a core motivation off the shelf. For other games you'll need to create one.

Then work outward from there, developing the backstory that adds detail and perhaps an origin to the Drive. Everything from his appearance to his gear to his special powers can arise out of this.

This covers you for the procedural narratives that are roleplaying’s bread and butter. For dramatic characters, stay tuned for my upcoming DramaSystem, as seen in its debut game, Hillfolk.

November 04, 2011

Dragonmeet 2011

With less than a month to go before London’s ever-delightful Dragonmeet convention, I am behooved to confirm that I will once more be in attendance. Thanks to the beneficence of Pelgrane Press and its magic spreadsheet, not only I but my esteemed colleague Kenneth Hite will once more descend, Oyster Cards in hand, on one of our favorite cities, to regale attendees with our wit, charm, and signatures. Those of you who’d held off making plans pending this news can now breathe easy and see us there. Amid all the other lovely folks and fun games, of course.

Dragonmeet takes place on Nov 26th, unfolding once again in the slightly chill bosom of Kensington Town Hall.

November 03, 2011

Dramatic Poles of the Walking Dead

At first glance, the survival horror cable series “The Walking Dead” would seem clearly procedural, devoted as it is to the efforts of a small band of people to tough out a zombie apocalypse. Certainly, many of its most memorable scenes pit characters against practical problems: finding a missing party member, snagging needed medical supplies, and the ever-popular hiding from undead. To run it in DramaSystem, you’d need to up the lethality level, replacing, for example, the rule that characters only die with their players’ consent.

Despite its emphasis on the procedural, it is also a dramatic show. As the second season gets underway, we can identify the dramatic poles of its key ensemble. You might peg them differently, but here’s what I’m seeing:

Rick: heroism or doubt?

Shane: altruism or selfishness?

Dale: wise old man or old man?

Andrea: survival or suicide?

Rick’s wife Lori has been written as mostly a foil for Rick and, to some extent, Shane. We tend to see her acting as the opposing force telling other characters not to do what they’re considering. Hopefully we’ll see her drawn as more of an individual, with her own clear and consistent poles, as the series progresses.

The redneck bad-ass Daryl at this point appears to be, in DramaSystem terms, a GM-controlled supporting character. His purpose is to provide relief by being an enjoyable rock of confidence, in contrast to Rick’s doubt and Shane’s concealed dark side.

Shane’s poles are turning out to be very familiar in both gaming and fiction. He shares them with Rick Blaine of Casablanca (as seen in Hamlet's Hit Points) and two characters from the in-house Hillfolk series. I expect to see them appear a lot as DramaSystem rolls out to the public.

November 01, 2011

Vampire Disappoints Area Man

At the risk of a pterodactylian reminiscence, I will now look back to an era before the YouTubes, prior to torrenting and VOD and even the humble VHS. (Though not so many years before the latter...)

Like many a monster-loving kid, my main school in cinematic horror was Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. One could hope for the afternoon movies from the Buffalo TV stations to roll around to kaiju flicks or go on a Harryhausen jag, but to learn the cultdom’s deep classics you had to consult its newsprint pages. I remember in particular a still from 1935’s Mark of the Vampire, with Bela Lugosi in Dracula outfit, accompanied by a white-clad, crazy-haired she-vamp. The text breathlessly extolled the rarity of this item, if nothing more. That only enhanced the coolness of the image. It was near impossible to see, so it must be great! And the movie was by Tod Browning, an extra point in its favor.

Flash forward * ahem harummph * years. Mark of the Vampire has been on DVD for a while now, as part of a collection of early horror rarities. I finally catch it on TCM. And you know what’s coming...’s utterly terrible!

To spoiler-alert a 76-year old dud, the first two acts are a charmingly clumsy elaboration on the Dracula structure, with a supremely hammy Lionel Barrymore taking on Van Helsing duties, and a larger-than-previous coven of bloodsuckers preying on our ingenue. Then comes the twist, in which the monstrous doings are revealed as a hoax. Almost all of the characters but one are party to a righteous Scooby Doo-ing, in which a faked vampire infestation provokes a murder suspect to give himself away. Here the rational explanation is way more implausible than the supernatural one.

It’s not the first time I built up an expectation for a work of art that fizzled when confronted with the real thing, but it’s doubtless the longest chronological gap between hope and reality.

Consider this your invitation to share your experiences of building up to a letdown.

October 31, 2011

NeoExodus Fiction

Speaking of crowdfunding, Louis J. Porter of Louis Porter Jr. Design Inc has enlisted me to write a fiction piece for the NeoExodus setting. The outcome of a Kickstarter campaign to launch LPJ’s fiction line will determine its scope. Full details here.

See P. XX

For a look at how DramaSystem handles scene framing, check out my eponymous column in the brand-new edition of Pelgrane Press’ webzine, See P. XX.

Among other included goodies are Adrian Bott’s look at the upside of failure, Steve Dempsey’s Trail of Cthulhu demo “Ritual Pursuits”, an assortment of Ashen Stars and ToC wallpapers, and a build-it-yourself apocalypse. Check it out!

October 28, 2011

Crowdfunding and You

Usually a single person’s buying preferences mean little in the grand sweep of a product roll-out. This doesn’t stop us from ascribing our desires to large numbers of other people when we wish an item was priced differently or had some other suite of features.

Crowdfunding changes all that. It allows a single person, by financing a goodly chunk of a project’s expenses, to become a significant portion of its market. Though no one thinks of it in this way, that’s one of the movement’s primary appeals: it ushers you into a realm of statistical significance. For once, your anecdotal data about your own purchasing history is relevant!

Simon Rogers and I are currently mulling the various perks we might offer as we crowdfund Hillfolk, the first DramaSystem game. With that in mind, I thought I’d pick the brains of those of you who have contributed to crowd-funded projects.

My assumption is that most people who contribute do so because they want a copy of the product being offered, and want to feel that they’re helping to bring it into existence. According to this thoroughly uncontroversial theory, the most compelling perk would obviously be the book itself, in both a modest and a premium version. Being credited in the book and elsewhere as a funder, I am also assuming, is another key incentive.

Aside from these central pillars of crowdfunding, are there other perks you’ve found particularly enticing? Conversely, what perks arouse your indifference? Are there perks that once inspired you to pledge, but have since paled in your estimation?

I’m not going to shoot you with my comment gun if you’ve put up a project for crowdfunding and have insights to share about the process. However, I am hoping for discussion primarily led by pledgers, past and future.

October 26, 2011

Toppled Silo

King of Dragon Pass sold as many units in its first six weeks of release as the game’s desktop incarnation did over its entire lifetime. As Sarah Newton pointed out over on the Twitter:

I guess it just shows the difference in reach once you break out of the "silo" into the global app market.

I think that’s exactly right. Moreover, KoDP serves as an exemplar of a shift in marketing eras. Back in the old-timey mists of 1999, computer games were items primarily sold in brick and mortar stores, packaged in largish cardboard boxes full of nothing. These stores ran on a pay for placement basis, renting out prime endcap space to manufacturers. Glossy magazines provided the main avenue of promotion. To snag coverage, you had to fit within one of four sharply delineated categories. King of Dragon Pass, with its mixture of storytelling and resource management, is and was sui generis. In the era of silos, originality turned out not only to be a minus, but a powerful barrier to entry.

Today we have shifted from the silo era to the recommendation era. Computer games are digital files sold through portals for whom a wide assortment of categories and deep stock are competitive advantages. Through social networking, creators can alert core customers for a niche game like KoDP to the portal, and let it do the rest. The portal provides the opportunity to break out of the niche. New players who have never rolled a d20 and have no idea who Greg Stafford is are now discovering the world of Glorantha.

And not all of them are even Scandinavian.

October 25, 2011

Paparazzo Drift

Like most governments, South Korea keeps more regulations on the books than it can afford to police. Its solution: offer small bounties to private citizens who report commercial infractions. The result: a growing industry of so-called “paparazzi” who, with video cameras in hand, act as freelance inspection officers. (NYT link.)

First, this presents us with a lovely example of linguistic drift. The term paparazzi originates in a work of fiction, the iconic Federico Fellini film La Dolce Vita, in which a photographer who hunts local celebrities and gossip figures with his camera is nicknamed Paparazzo—which means buzzing fly. It soon entered the English language, transmuted into a general term for celebrity-stalking photographer. And now it has mutated again, moving to Korea to describe these for-profit regulators.

South Korea’s film industry has been on a roll lately, turning out great genre flicks. How long will it be before this real-life situation, rife with cinematic promise, supplies the premise for a movie—and what genre will it tackle?

Crime drama: A budding regulator winds up over his head when he records the wrong infraction at a mob-owned factory.

Spy thriller: A paparazzi flees North Korean agents when his tape of food stall infractions accidentally captures their activities.

Comedy: The cat and mouse game between a paparazzi and his business owner target turns into an escalating series of reprisals.

Romantic Comedy: An unlikely pair of freelance regulators fall in love when they compete to expose the same dumping scam.

Horror: Terror abounds when a team of young paparazzi discover that the secret hidden of an abandoned factory is something far worse than drums of toxic waste...

October 24, 2011

The Info Page Is Your Friend

Here’s a plug for a tool I’ve found very useful in calibrating my net presence. If yours includes links, and constitutes an outreach effort of some kind—that is, you care how many people respond to your links by clicking on them—you may find it equally helpful.

We all know the main purpose of link shorteners. Before Twitter embedded its own URL-shrinker in its interface, was clearly the leader in the field. I still find it the service to use, because of the metrics it gives you when you create a link while signed into their site. If you add their bookmarklet to your browser, you get a fast way to generate links from pages, which then propagate to Twitter and Facebook. One presumes that Google+ will join the list when its API goes public.

The bookmarklet gives you a handy 140-character editing window and allows you to pick thumbnails for Facebook.

The thing I’m finding really useful about is the ability to go to a list of one’s links, in what is called your public timeline, and see how popular each item has been. For each link you can consult an info page that lists other Twitter cites, tells you when clicks occurred, and from what platform.

It was through these info pages that I first saw how effective Google+ was in driving attention, even a few weeks into its launch. Though I’m sometimes surprised by how much (or how little) mileage a given link gets, it provides an ongoing reminder of the sorts of subjects my readers are interested in—or not.

Those who link purely out of self-expression won’t find much to care about here, unless they feel irresistibly drawn to pie charts. But if you link to your own blog or other articles to maintain a profile or get a message out, your timeline will assist in fine-tuning your choices.