March 30, 2012

Don’t Read This Book

Evil Hat has released the cover image for Don’t Read This Book, its upcoming anthology of short fiction set in the Don’t Rest Your Head game setting. The insomniac protagonists of DRYH slip from our world to a surreal parallel realm of gothic strangeness, fearing both that they will never sleep again and that they will awaken, losing their strange new powers. My contribution to the book, “Don’t Lose Your Shit”, tells the tale of a recent inductee into this unending night, as he discovers a weird convenience store on the head-pounding borderland of sleep and waking. There in its beverage refrigerator awaits a troubling array of unfamiliar energy drinks, which hold out the promise of both doom and salvation to its haunted and shuffling denizens.

Note the impressive roster of writers assembled by the book’s editor, the fearless and peerless Chuck Wendig. I await announcement of a release date with hallucinatory fervor.

March 28, 2012

The Leng Connection

A Ripped From the History Books Scenario Hook for Trail of Cthulhu

The exact extent to which the 1938-39 Tibet expedition led by explorer Ernst Schafer served the Nazi agenda remains a matter of controversy. After the war, Schafer claimed to have come by his posting as an SS Hauptstrumfuhrer unwillingly. Also unclear is how successfully he derailed Himmler’s goal for the trip—to have Ahnenerbe pseudoscientists measure Tibetan skulls in an attempt to prove that Siddhattha Gotama, the historical Buddha, had been an Aryan in good standing.

Perhaps the greatest mystery is what Himmler thought he stood to gain by proving this, given the incompatibility of Nazi ideology and Buddhist thought.

If we fictionalize it a little, though, we get a Trail of Cthulhu scenario of high altitude high adventure.

When a politically fervid fellow inquirer into the mythos conspiracy goes missing in Tibet, the investigators follow his trail. They discover his plan to infect Himmler’s minions with contagious madness, by leading the Ahnenerbe to the Plateau of Leng. Do they help him destroy Nazi scum—or see the vast potential for backfire, and work to thwart him?

Source: Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, Stephen Batchelor

March 27, 2012

Disorienting Exposition

In fiction set in unfamiliar times and places, it often falls to the author to explain details of the world well-known to the characters but not to the reader. How straightforwardly to lay this out is a matter of style, and therefore taste. I tend to want to deliver it in a compact way and get on to the story it’s supporting. Some readers prefer obscured approaches that take longer but don’t necessarily signal themselves as expository—world detail through dialogue being a key technique.

A more complex technique presents expository detail about the world as if addressing a reader already familiar with it. Most often you'll see this in SF novels. The narrator rattles off terms and describes situations without full explanatory context.

According to the beat analysis system found in Hamlet's Hit Points, these mystifying references serve as question beats. They arouse our anxiety and our curiosity, impelling us to read on, in search of clarification. As we figure out the world through additional context, we feel counterpointing up beats, when those questions are answered.

This might be seen as the SF version of a common literary fiction gambit, where details of the story being retold are teased but not fully laid out. In both cases these can substitute for the basic building blocks of most fiction, dramatic and procedural scenes.

How much one digs this is another matter of taste. Personally, I prefer to be invested in a character, to hope for her success and fear for her failure, before I’m asked to puzzle through an alien future. Other readers might be perfectly happy with pure world extrapolation, without all that pesky story and character always rearing its head.

March 26, 2012

Carts and Horses

Apropos of a previous post, Josh W asks: How often do you find yourself budding systems off and turning them into other distinct games? If it happens often enough, how do you deduce the design through-line that subsystem fits?

For reasons implicit in your second question, this happens to me exactly never. I’ve certainly created sub-systems only to realize that they don’t fit the design through-line. Usually they interpret the design goals too literally, or are disappear down a rabbit-hole of unnecessary simulation. Because of this, they are also usually flawed in and of themselves and thus go to the great discard pile in the sky.

Never have I accidentally created a rules subset that would work fine, if only I were working on a different game. In my view, building a game and its core activity around a nifty rules idea is a recipe for disaster. Start with the activity you think will make for engaging play, then facilitate that with rules that enable it in as simple and elegant a manner as possible.

Sometimes I do encounter games that feel like they sparked first from a system idea, with the core activity yoked in to serve it. If it even has a clear core activity. When you ask a designer to describe his game and he starts with a game mechanic, that’s a warning sign of a game designed from an abstract rules concept outwards. (Or maybe he’s just lousy at pitching.) For a few categories, like abstract games, design from sub-system out may be desirable. Often, though, you'll get the feeling during play that you are working for the rules rather than having them work for you.

March 22, 2012

Precisely Subjective

At Gaming as Women, Darla Magdalene-Shockley posits that subjective reward mechanics, dispensed for entertaining roleplaying, carry the risk of unconscious gender bias. Regarding actual play with Paranoia XP, she observes:

[W]e are all socialized very strongly to view women in certain ways. We expect women to be responsible, do the boring administrative work, and in general shut down the fun.  We emphatically do not expect women to be silly.  So women are less likely to be silly, and everyone is less likely to notice when they are.  The Paranoia GM (despite being quite the stand-up guy) is less likely to notice and reward it.

Unexamined assumptions at the gaming table, including those surrounding gender, can certainly play havoc with what is meant to be a facilitator of gaming fun. Many people first came to RPGs as a structured way of overcoming shyness. Quiet, uncertain or casual players, whether they’re that way out of socialization or inclination, or both, will get left behind by rules that do this—and maybe feel uncomfortably singled out when the GM takes compensating measures.

On the other hand, all games inevitably favor certain personal traits over others. The vast corpus of traditional games reward math savvy, recollection of complex rules, and willingness to spend time poring over rules text searching for optimal character build choices. In this context it hardly seems unreasonable that players with confident performance and improv skills will prosper in games falling on the story side of the spectrum.

A middle ground can be found by narrowing and defining the subjectively rewarded activity. The Dying Earth and its descendants, Skulduggery and The Gaean Reach (which I’m working on now), all mechanically encourage you to weaving taglines (supplied lines of dialogue) into the session. They bribe you to talk like Jack Vance’s characters, an essential element in creating the feeling that you’re exploring his worlds.

The GM does judge how effectively you use a given tagline, but by gauging the reactions of the group to your bon mots, which takes into account an observable, gestalt subjectivity if not objectivity. Where the instruction to “be entertaining” is broad and hard to define, the metrics for taglines are clear and simple. If, for whatever, reason you’re less than voluble, taglines give you highly structured permission to seize spotlight time.

March 21, 2012


In the latest episode of the That's How We Roll podcast, hosts Fred Hicks and Chris Hanrahan talk to author Chuck Wendig about his work on Evil Hat’s burgeoning fiction line. I tuned in hoping to hear Chuck on Don’t Read This Book, an upcoming anthology set in the Don’t Rest Your Head universe, to which I contributed a piece. Much of the run time goes to their inaugural Spirit of the Century novel trilogy, Dinocalypse.

The top of the chat deals with issues well-known to anyone plying the waters of tie-in fiction. There’s the eternal question of balancing material that serves the story at hand with choices that put across the broader property. Then there’s the parallel, game-specific matter of how much license authors are afforded to reference or sidestep game rules.

What I learned from the podcast arises from Evil Hat’s Kickstarter strategy. As someone on the brink of a crowd-funded project or two, I found it a salutary exercise in preconception adjustment. Fred talks about the value of having material not just in the notional phase, but ready to deliver to funders, instant gratification style. This tells me that an issue I’ve been concerned about is actually a plus. Perhaps taking the name of the main crowd-funding organ too literally, I’ve been assuming that pledgers want in on the ground floor and might shy from projects already in a high state of readiness. Why make happen what has already happened? Instead Fred and crew indicate that pledgers want something the creators have already invested their time and money in. It’s more about putting the project over the top than providing seed capital. If so, it’s another example of the culture of a web entity moving away from the assumptions of its original creators.

With benefit of hindsight, it might be called Kickfinisher.

March 20, 2012

Blood of the City

Paizo has announced my next novel for their Pathfinder Tales fiction line, due in August. Here there be sell-text:

Luma is a cobblestone druid, a canny fighter and spellcaster who can read the chaos of Magnimar's city streets like a scholar reads books. Together, she and her siblings in the powerful Derexhi family form one of the most infamous and effective mercenary companies in the city, solving problems for the city's wealthy elite. Yet despite being the oldest child, Luma gets little respect—perhaps due to her half-elven heritage. When a job gone wrong lands Luma in the fearsome prison called the Hells, it's only the start of Luma's problems. For a new web of bloody power politics is growing in Magnimar, and it may be that those Luma trusts most have become her deadliest enemies...

From visionary game designer and author Robin D. Laws comes a new urban fantasy adventure of murder, betrayal, and political intrigue set in the award-winning world of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

400-page mass market paperback

ISBN–13: 978-1-60125-456-6

Thanks to the Paizo marketing department for upgrading me from legendary (as per the equivalent text for The Worldwound Gambit) to visionary.

Blood of the City stands alone from the previous book, though there might just be a wee crossover tucked in there.... It eschews the present tense a faction of Worldwound readers found worrying, in favor of the fantasy-standard past tense. Proceed to mourn or celebrate, as your tastes dictate.

Place your vengeance-soaked pre-orders at the product page.

March 16, 2012

Lovecraft’s Influence and This Month’s See P. XX

This month’s edition of See P. XX takes the 75th anniversary of H. P. Lovecraft’s death as an occasion for Pelgrane Press regulars, including Kenneth Hite and yours truly, to examine his influence. I’m also on board with more on the play value and psychology of GUMSHOE point spends. There’s also a call for playtesting on an intriguing new fantasy game from Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo, a publisher’s look at freelancer payments, and a Steve Dempsey demo for The Esoterrorists. Check it out!

March 15, 2012

Adventures in Title Treatment

As a dry run for New Tales of the Yellow Sign, I’ve decided to disseminate a free short story to the various ebook venues. Longtime blog readers may remember “The Star Makers” as a piece I once released into the wild in PDF format. This contemporary supernatural adventure features Orlando Frank, who turned his back on the family occult crimebusting business to pursue his muse as a mildly famous indie rocker.

In this exploration of self-publishing, I’m envisioning a tiny, bewinged John Nephew on my shoulder, advising me not to do anything he wouldn't. In other words, parsimony must rule the day. So while I’m commissioning a gorgeous cover from Jerome Huguenin for NTYS, I can’t justify the cost for a sheerly promotional effort. Which is to say, it falls to me to put together an at least creditable virtual cover.

The story’s contemporary period and music scene backdrop allow me to reach for something photographic, sparing the vulnerable masses from my attempt at drawing. For the design vocabulary I’m looking at something you might see on a book by Chuck Klosterman or Sarah Vowell. A simplified band poster motif seems like it fits the bill, and, if need be, provides a template for future variations. The poster’s guitar neck pentacle fuses the rock ‘n’ roll and supernatural elements.

So here's what I’ve come up with, in two variations. They’re not going to keep any actual graphic designers up at night, but I think they fall within the standard of the freebie story ebook cover. Which of these grabs your eye?

Before you hit send on the comment button, remember that these have to play in at the very small 155 pixel height a book cover gets in an Amazon search result. Does this change your perception any?

March 14, 2012

Flames Rising Interview

As part of Flames Rising’s ongoing interview series with the authors of Paizo’s Pathfinder Tales line, Jeremy L. C. Jones puts the questions to me regarding The Worldwound Gambit, novel development, and the essence of a compelling protagonist. Along the way I drop a hint or two surrounding my unannounced next Pathfinder novel, talk up Hamlet’s Hit Points as  a plotting aid, and provide aspiring writers with either encouraging discouragement or discouraging encouragement. Check it out.

March 13, 2012

Back to the Edge

In a move sure to activate the salivary glands of ludobibliophiles throughout the reality grid, Atlas Games has announced the Over the Edge 20th Anniversary Edition. The classic and seminal roleplaying game of weird contemporary conspiracy, by Jonathan Tweet with yours truly, resurfaces from the depths of the Terminal in a lavish limited printing, with deluxe binding and premium interior. Extras include new essays by Jonathan, Greg Stolze, Keith Baker and John Nephew—and a newly commissioned full-color map.

With its concentration on secrets, Jonathan recently referred to his Al Amarja setting as a product of its era. With the battle between chaos and control ever-ratcheting, I feel like it’s never been timelier.

(Can it really have been that long? If this game is twenty years old, that means my career in hobby game is exactly that old, too.)

Tie on your best silk noose and head on over to the product page.

March 09, 2012

Repairer of Reputations 25% Off in Pelgrane’s Hidden Gems Sale

My Trail of Cthulhu adaptation of the Robert Chambers classic story The Repairer of Reputations is available at a discount until Mar 16th. It’s part of Pelgrane’s Hidden Treasures sale, along with Lorefinder (GUMSHOE/Pathfinder), Brief Cases (Mutant City Blues), and Invasive Procedures (Trail of Cthulhu / Fear Itself.) Go check out Simon Rogers’ theories on why they haven’t received the sales love they deserve, then click through to pick ‘em up cheap.

Six Difficulties of Fiction Plotting

1. How do they know X?

2. Why do they not know X?

3. How do they meet up?

4. What prevents them from meeting up?

5. How do they contact each other?

6. What prevents them from contacting each other?

March 08, 2012

The Brain Printer

A Ripped From the Headlines Scenario Hook for Ashen Stars

In a development that raises the prospect of bespoke organs created with cells extruded through a 3D printer, a patient in a June 2011 procedure received a new windpipe grown specifically for him. 3D scanning technology provided the template for an exact replica of his original windpipe, sculpted from polymer around a glass mold.

In the future timeline of Ashen Stars, the utopian space empire known as the Combine once assiduously policed its ban on sentient-species cloning. Like so much else, this has fallen by the wayside in the frontier region of the Bleed. But so far it’s proven impossible to create true replicas of intelligent beings—you can make a physical copy, and even age it, but you can’t recreate all of the experiences that shape personal identity.

That may have changed, the lasers discover, when they get the terms of their latest contract. Famed inventor Sian Sar hires them to track down her ex-husband, Rog Trainor, who, without her knowledge, used her own scanning technology to make a complete cellular scan of her brain. She believes that he’s printed out a meat version of her brain, and is using it for competitive advantage—putting her genius to work on the same technologies her company is feverishly developing. Their mission: to bring Trainor to justice, and destroy the counterfeit of her brain.

The twist: Trainor has not only grown a replica of his ex-wife’s brain, but installed it in a clone copy of her body. The result is a new person, who shares Sar’s experiences and personality up to a point, but then diverged. She may not want to remain imprisoned and working for Trainor, but she doesn't want to be murdered, either. Do the lasers fulfill their contract, or accept her claims of full personhood?

March 07, 2012

It’s the Squares, Man

Over at Gameplaywright, friend of the blog Will Hindmarch raises a discontinuity in RPG argument:

This discontinuity in arguments about RPGs fascinates me: miniatures-based situations get in the way of RP and narrative, apparently, while games encouraging players to draw frequent maps and diagrams do not. What is it about molded plastic figures or the precision of measured spaces that clogs the gears of narrative?

I ask as someone who did not use miniatures in any RPG capacity until D&D3.x and has found plenty of fuel and clarity for both narrative and roleplay in games with and without miniatures. Why is a map okay until we set miniatures on it?

Without buying into the idea that the play style facilitated by one set of design decisions can be objectively superior to those fostered by another, I do think a perceptual shift occurs when you go from map to battlemap. Costs and benefits pertain to this shift, and it’s up to the designer to take them into account in pursuing the game’s design goals.

Your classic hand-drawn dungeon map, either drawn by players or received as a handout, serves as a reference point for further visualization. When you hold it in your hand, you’re using it to picture the scene in your mind’s eye.

A battle map, rolled out or drawn by the GM on a table, shifts everyone’s visual focus from parallel visualizations to the representation everybody sees. If the group gets up from chairs set up around the room to stand over a table, that shift in physical position acts as a hard break between one mode of play and another.

The brain’s bias toward the figurative emphasizes this when miniatures hit the table. We’re keyed to respond powerfully to images of people, no matter how crude. Minis further shift us from an imaginative picture to a literal one, from interior vision to exterior object. As dramatic as this effect may be, I’d argue that it’s not the biggest issue

I’d argue that the most powerful difference arises from the importance of squares to any battlemap. An old school dungeon map may be drawn on graph paper, but its squares act only as an aid to the drawing hand. On the battlemap, they become tactically active, adding a board game component to the RPG experience. The focus shifts from visualization to making the right plays, many of which revolve around positioning, with the number of squares one can move another resource to be cleverly managed over the course of a fight.

It’s not the shift between maps to maps with minis that lies at the heart of this issue. It’s the jump from map to board.

March 05, 2012

When Laws Collide

When adding a new rule to a game, the designer must consider how it interacts with the game’s other systems. One major task of playtesting is to find the surprise interactions between seemingly unrelated rules, and eliminate them.

Legislators, and the bureaucrats who interpret the various laws they pass, suffer no such limitations. Here's a bizarre example of a collision between two unrelated statutes that suggests that Congress ought to playtest more efficiently before succumbing to rules bloat.

The estate of art dealer Ileana Sonnenbend is suing the IRS to reverse a ruling valuing a famous Robert Rauschenberg collage/painting, “Canyon”, at $65 million for inheritance tax purposes. The problem? “Canyon” famously features the taxidermied wings of a bald eagle, rendering its sale illegal under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. This law predates the creation of the piece; Rauschenberg was breaking it when he made the work. It can’t even be exhibited without a special permit.

Sonnenbend valued it at $0. The IRS argued otherwise. They regularly levy taxes on illegal items, including stolen goods. In this case, they’re telling the estate that it could sell “Canyon” on the black market, perhaps to a “reclusive billionaire in China,” and thus owes them a masterpiece-based rate. The taxman is all but telling executors to go ahead and break that pesky, non-remunerative other law. Hey, it’s only enforced by those wussies at the Fish and Wildlife Service.

With no GM to decide which rule takes precedence, estate lawyers have made an appointment with the next best thing—a US tax court judge.

March 02, 2012

I Should’ve Remembered I Should’ve Said

Tyler at Held Action does me the great service of unpacking an idea I floated back at the Dragonmeet “Ask Ken and Robin and Simon panel.” It’s a thought so brilliant I totally forgot making it: that the player choice to spend investigative points in GUMSHOE can be likened to the improv game of “Should’ve Said.” In the game, the performers create a scene, and audience members can yells out “Should’ve Said” when a line isn’t cool enough. The actor then rewinds and supplies what is hopefully a funnier line.

Tyler notes that this idea can be extended to any game with a hero or drama point mechanic:

When a player spends a point, they’re really saying, “Change up what you’re saying.”

With drama points, that change-up is probably to do with the player not being happy with what the GM’s saying: “Your character takes a blow to the head” or “You don’t find anything of interest in the warlock’s study.” If they’re spending points, they’re not happy about something. Outside of the immediate redress of “Oh, it was a glancing wound,” I think it’s a good mindset to take those spends as an opportunity to ramp up engagement by giving them exceptional carrots.

In expanding this idea, Tyler has hit on a helpful way of understanding ability points in GUMSHOE. In a sense, they really do represent a targeted drama point system, in which you get lots of points to spend in different situations that, through action, reveal your character’s key traits.

March 01, 2012

Tragedy of the Meaty Commons

A Chicxulub-intensity extinction event is headed for my dinner table, and it lands on April 7. European Quality Meats, the butcher shop I’ve been frequenting for the last fifteen years, is slated to close, a casualty of gentrification. Established half a century ago, it’s a fixture of a key Toronto location, Kensington Market. This matrix of independent shops shows the marks of successive waves of immigration. For a hundred years it’s been the place freshly arrived communities gravitate towards, leaving stores and restaurants behind even when they become prosperous and move elsewhere. From Jewish to Portuguese, from Caribbean to Tibetan, its businesses are the Toronto I love in microcosm. Kensington likewise mirrors the history of alternative culture in the city, from the used clothing shops of the 80s to the artisanal coffee and charcuterie joints of the present moment.

With one or two exceptions, chain stores have failed to gain a foothold here. Despite the odds, Kensington remains a vibrant oasis of local culture. Two things about oases: they’re delicate, and people fight over them. Conflicts bubble between residents and park squatters, between proponents and opponents of car-free summer festivals.

Were I cruelly tricked into telling an evil mastermind how to wreck the market, European Quality Meats is exactly the jenga tile I’d tell him to knock out. The nabe is served by a few other meat purveyors, from the cutting edge to the poky and old-school, but none can handle EQM’s volume, or deliver its balance of value and, well, quality. What happens to Kensington’s shops of other categories, like produce, seafood, cheese, bulk food, and manifold national specialties, if you can’t really buy everyday meat there anymore?

It’s hard to begrudge any owner of a longtime family business for cashing out, selling the property, and pocketing $1.8 million—even when they aren't septuagenarian Holocaust survivors like European Meats founder Morris Leider. A business isn’t a heritage site, no matter how much it may anchor the neighborhood around it.

That building is worth nearly two mil because it’s in Kensington. And Kensington is Kensington because of its key commercial institutions, European Quality Meats foremost among them. You couldn’t ask for a more frustrating example of gentrification’s core irony.