July 31, 2012

Treasure of Far Thallai Part 5

Part FiveHarpies don’t normally take prisoners, but when pirate-Pathfinder Challys Argent and her unwilling adjutants find one in a bone-strewn nest, they begin to see the plan of the man they hunt, Captain Kered Firsk. Follow them to a confrontation with sea devils in “Becalmed”, the penultimate chapter of my serialized novella “The Treasure of Far Thallai.” Find it in The Price of Infamy, part five of the Skull and Shackles Pathfinder Adventure Path, available now from Paizo or your favorite purveyor of fine game products.

July 30, 2012

Futile Position Interview

In honor of Ashen Stars’ ENnie nod, I am interviewed at Futile Position on the game’s development, GUMSHOE philosophy, Hillfolk and more.

July 26, 2012

July 25, 2012

Catch Me on the G*M*S Podcast

Color me honored to appear as a guest on the landmark 50th episode of the G*M*S Podcast. Join ace interviewer Paco Jaen as he grills me on Stone Skin Press, Hillfolk, and how we coerced Simon Rogers into greenlighting Dreamhounds of Paris.

Regarding the post-interview discussion, I hate to ruin a thrilling mental picture but have to say that working with Chuck Wendig in no way resembled a clash of the titans. When you commission a piece from Chuck, it’s not his delightfully gonzo online persona that shows up to play, but a skilled and thoroughly professional talent. He delivers great work and, when asked for adjustments, responds to them in a way that further plumbs the emotional depth of his story.

In the same discussion, Paco wonders, re: Hillfolk, how much politics and drama can arise from a tribal raiding culture. Clearly Paco has never been an iron age raider. From deposing the chieftain to making alliances and feuds, grist for intrigue always abounds in a Hillfolk game. The relative isolation of the tribal setting provides the emotional hothouse that requires the main characters to continue to deal with one another. Most compelling dramas confine their main casts in some way, within a family, sub-culture, or power structure. The raider band conceit does that in a very clear and simple way, helping players to quickly find and remain in the game’s essential rhythm.

July 23, 2012

Continuum 2012

LEICESTER, UK -- Events like Continuum, which began its life as a biennial convention twenty years ago, are supposed to reinforce the thesis of a hobby slowly aging out and losing steam. Tell that to the 26% of its 250 attendees who were new to the show this time out. Longtime stalwarts of the English gaming scene showed up in force, to once again affirm their love for Glorantha, Cthulhu, Pendragon and all expressions of the Chaosium diaspora. But the sign-up sheets offered a broad assortment of other tabletop RPGs, as freeforms unfolded several buildings down, and board games dotted the dining hall. This with a separate board game convention going on across the street, putting competitive pressure on the University of Leicester's curiously curtailed beer supply.


Among my three panels were the classic state of the hobby gaming industry chin-wag, which now has a brand new topic to bat around: Kickstarter and its implications. In the game design panel we talked about identifying the experience you want to create for the gamer, and how to build up from there so that every element of the rules set brings abut that experience. And in a general “Ask Robin” session I provided the origin stories of Feng Shui and Rune, traced the way editions of D&D have historically drawn in other developments from roleplaying design, and posited various possible shapes the RPG core rule book might take in a world of ubiquitous tablet computing.

Speaking of technology's bleeding edge, Greg Stafford beamed in from California via Google Hangout. Though a bum connection introduced frustrating pauses, he revealed to Pendragon fans the deep contents of a product pipeline, including a Charlemagne campaigC-Gregn book. He explained how his recent adventures as a horseman have granted him new insight into the Arthurian cycle, and spoke of his four decades of work on Glorantha as tracing his development from youthful naivete to maturer understanding. When he got to the historicity of Arthur, Oliver Dickinson was on hand to volley back at him in tart, affectionate counterpoint.

Ooohs interspersed with aaahs at the Moon Design seminar, as co-honcho Jeff Richard showed off gorgeous art and phone book-thick manuscripts for the long-awaited Guide to Glorantha book and a Sartar-set Orlanthi campaign. The profoundest gasps were elicited by a slideshow of maps for the former, which place every detail of Greg's originals, from elevations to the nimbus of the storm god's influence, all underpinned by a five-mile hex map. This act of cartography, executed by Colin Driver, can only be described as heroic, right down to its individually placed tree symbols. The map is not only stunning as a work-in-progress, but lays the groundwork for a zoomable 3D version! Moon Design's current surge lends this starry-eyed prospect an air of downright plausibility. On a more prosaic note, Jeff laid out his move to a hybrid business model, in which the company continues to makes its nut with direct sales to the hard core, but then opens a later release window, in which Cubicle Seven pushes the books out to retail stores. We also learned which nation of Glorantha embodies the death of sixties idealism, how the current team finally nailed mysticism as a path fun player characters can follow, and the geographical parallels between the Lunar and American heartlands.

The Hillfolk game reached a groove quickly and kept on rolling. Unusually for a one-shot run, it did not evolve into a battle over the chieftainship, but instead pitted a great raider's effort to start a war with a neighboring clan against the chief counselor's scheme to ally with them against foreign enemies. Our hot-headed warrior hero faced surprise comeuppance as a disregarded female hero of the clan laid a public thrashing on him, instigated by his prospective bride, a proud champion of the rival Hard Heads.

This time around I set aside the rule that steers a one-shot run to a definitive conclusion, instead concluding by saying, “And this would be the first episode of your Hillfolk series.” Ultimately I think this is the way to go with Hillfolk demos, since it is tuned for longer-term play than many narrative-oriented games. No one seemed particularly disturbed by the open-endedness, which gives a better look at DramaSystem in the mode it's tuned for. When run at cons outside the demo context, the final escalation rules probably remain the way to go. Or maybe closure is overrated in general, and players are happy to be left envisioning more.

As always when privileged to take part in an intense moment of community, I leave Continuum exhausted and grateful. Thanks to organizer Darran Simms, games organizer Keary Birch and panel poobah Colin Driver, along with the rest of the Continuum team. Their system of just-in-time organization makes for a loose and calmly run event.

C-Dead Again

July 20, 2012

The Vanguard Couldn’t Be Us, Could It?

LONDON -- In the company of the estimable James Wallis, at the beautiful St. Bride’s library, I attended an event called Publish! New Players, New Innovations. Although  the name does sound a little buzzwordy, I've been to other panels and seminars about the future of publishing dominated by doom and gloom, so it was encouraging to be promised an evening looking forward to fresh possibilities. It turned out that most of the presenters were hopeful because what they were doing was not publishing. They’re mostly making apps. I was heartened to see a literary writer among the panelists fielding questions during the event’s second half. Litfic authors in general have been slow to embrace the opportunities inherent in the great Internet shake-up. Kate Pullinger, a transplanted British Columbian and winner of Canada's prestigious Governor-General's Award (it's our Pulitzer) sees her new media writing grow its audience month after month, long after a novel would be done its sale cycle. She deplored the way creative writing workshop culture encourages writers to cast themselves back to the beginning of the 20th century.

One thing that is going to have to leave the literary arsenal is preciousness, which can't survive the level of engagement required by social media. Hey, if Margaret Atwood can go to the San Diego comic con and get her picture taken with Klingons, it means the great persona shift is on.

As is often the case at these events I was reminded just how far ahead of the curve our crazy little corner the publishing industry is. From adjusting to piracy to community building to crowdfunding to hardcopy/ebook bundling, the stuff we consider part of our day-to-day practice reads to conventional publishing as a bizarre transmission from an alternate future. We may be a bunch of spunky kids with a barn and some costumes putting on a show but we're figuring out things for ourselves and making it happen. The future of publishing may well be the small press and we’ve got the new economics of that well corralled. Maybe the real money in hobby gaming is in learning its lessons and then teaching them to others as a bunch of fancy consultants.

After that, a pub was repaired to, where there was talk of movie remakes, ancient messages from the dawn of the Internet, and the horrors of British real estate transactions.

July 19, 2012

The Lime Green Menace

LONDON —  I've added a few days to the front of my journey to the Continuum convention in beautiful Leicester to hang out at the Pelgrane's nest in London. Olympians are already arriving in the city by the Thames, so I expected crazy delays and ratcheted security at Heathrow. Instead it was the usual breeze. Later I hear that fear of Olympic craziness has deterred visitors, so much so that ticket sales to other London events like theater and the opera have dropped dramatically. My favorite feature of the coming festivities is an ad campaign on the tube admonishing locals to cheerily compensate for the wave of inconveniences to come.

I joined Head Pelgrane Simon Rogers for a lunch in celebration of the company's epic 10 ENnie nominations, with contributors to nominated projects Beth K. Lewis, Steve Dempsey and Paula Dempsey modestly basking in the fruits of their labors.

Then Simon, Steve and I hove off to soak in some visual research for Dreamhounds of Paris, heading to the surrealist section of the Tate Modern's standing collection. Dali's lobster telephone was in storage, perhaps to make room for a Hirst exhibit, but we did see suitably inspirational canvases by de Chirico, Ernst, Man Ray and others.

Having escaped a heatwave back home, I was relieved to stroll through a cool drizzle to the John Soane Museum. This famed apogee of the imperial collecting era fills a house to mammoth concept drawings from the architect who gathered all this stuff, along with decorative pieces and artifacts from Egypt, Greece, Rome, China and probably others. Upstairs are the paintings by Canaletto, Watteau, Turner and Hogarth; downstairs is the crumbling alabaster sarcophagus of Pharaoh Seti I.

Lime Green

As entertaining as Soane's vast accumulation of stuff was a drama witnessed as we waited in the queue to get in. Workmen were in the process of sticking a lime green tribute to the city governments Olympic tie-in greenery initiative on the high-end sidewalk slabs right outside the museum. A pinstriped museum official leapt to his mobile phone to argue down the functionary on the other end of the line without ever once quite saying the word hideous. (It was implied in his emphasis on the lime in lime green.) Finally aesthetic logic won out over political self-promotion, and the Soane, now under renovation and promoting the Olympics with its own cross-promoting exhibit, was spared. Workmen rolled up the offending banner and drove away.

July 17, 2012

The Birds: Just a Name

Just a Name

Click here for the complete strip archive.

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The Star Makers

When scouting for the Stone Skin Press anthologies, I found it extremely helpful when writers’ sites included samples of their work, or links to same. (Even if you have multiple pieces out there in various web venues, it might be wise to feature the one that best reflects your current work.)

You’d think, then, that I would have gotten my own memo and made such a thing available from here. Well, uh, I’ve been busy.

Anyhow, I now rectify in myself this failing I deplore in others by making available “The Star Makers.” Orlando Frank, who has given up the supernatural family business to pursue music stardom, but can’t help getting drawn back into the mystic stuff, stars in this guitar-driven occult adventure.

To grab the story in your ebook format of choice, head on over to its Smashwords page.

July 16, 2012

Shub-Niggurath Syndrome

When I agreed to serve as creative director for Stone Skin Press, one of my challenges to myself was to always treat writers as I would want to be treated. This is simpler to say than to live up to.

For example, I don’t want people having to write on spec for us, especially since our anthology themes can be quite specific. Sure, if I made an open call for action-oriented Cthulhu mythos stories, the writers of good pieces that didn’t make the cut could eventually place them elsewhere. But it might not be so easy to place an iconic hero tale or a modern fable.

For this reason, I set up the process to invite people I knew I wanted in the books, if they were available and willing. Part of the Stone Skin mandate is to cross the streams of various creative scenes, bringing together talents you wouldn’t normally see on the same table of contents. As we go along, we’ve been able to expand our range quite a bit. By the fourth book, The Lion and the Aardvark, you'll be seeing not only names from our gaming home team and its adjacent S/SF world, but also contributors from comics, YA, journalism, film and literary fiction. The invitation process becomes akin to casting a play, where the objective is to look not only at the individual contributions but the overall mixture of tones and traditions.

For this to work, I did need an advance indication of what each writer planned to submit, to avoid overlap. Some Lion and the Aardvark stories concern the Internet, as you might expect from the modern fable concept—or from looking at the titular animals on the cover and notice what they’re tapping away on. Two different writers toyed with the idea of a story featuring the legendary white squirrel of Toronto’s Trinity-Bellwoods park. (Alas for fans of Whitey McRedeyes, he made himself elusive and will not be making an appearance in the final book.)

Even with me keeping an eye on story ideas this, it turns out that an anthology has a life of its own, and that certain themes and motifs were determined to worm their way in. When writers diverged from their pitches, they often moved in the same direction. I’ve come to think of this as Shub-Niggurath syndrome: for Shotguns v. Cthulhu, it seemed like every second story wanted to be about that particular Lovecraftian anti-deity. For the fables book, I had to steer contributors away from meta-pieces about the writing life, a subject John Kovalic already has hilarious dibs on.

A recurring motif made its way into the two New Hero books, too. That one’s a little spoilery, so that's all I’ll say for now. I’m wondering if it will be as apparent to readers as it became to me.

I’m sure a Shub-Niggurath Syndrome will manifest in the next book we commission, and am just as positive that its exact nature will come as an odd surprise.

Pre-order some or all of the first four Stone Skin Press books, in various permutations, with or without cupcakes for the London office, by taking part in the Kickstarter for our launch.

July 13, 2012

The Belisarius Intervention

A revolt against a planetary despot disrupts your rescue mission. Do you intervene or stick to the brief? Check out the latest installment of StoryCraft at The Ancient Scroll.

July 11, 2012

Behind the Scenes on Shotguns v. Cthulhu

Yesterday I revealed the Shotguns v. Cthulhu Table of Contents. Today I thought I’d draw back the squamous curtain and share project brief I sent to our impressive roster of New Cthulhuvians. Here’s the meat of it, shorn of the boring business stuff.

The premise: a story of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos which includes at least one action sequence.

“Action sequence” could, among other things, evoke the spirit of:

  • Robert E. Howard’s two-fisted mythos tales

  • the rooftop chase from Shadow Over Innsmouth

  • Ludlumesque technothriller meets cosmic horror

  • that loopy, tommy-gun heavy Call of Cthulhu game you ran when you were thirteen

To fulfill the promise of the title, I need at least some adventure romps in which sinewy muscle and/or high-powered weaponry prevail against the minions of the Great Old Ones. That said, I’d also like to see stories combining movement and violence with the existential despair at the heart of Lovecraft’s work. There might be some room for the oddball or deconstructive takes on HPL; I’m not looking for outright spoof or parody.

Stories can be set in any period. If anything, I’m resistant to pieces that revel in the 1920s and 1930s as a wellspring of the quaint and old-timey. Prehistorical, historical, contemporary, futuristic are all possibilities.

I’ll also be skeptical of stories that include Lovecraft himself or his works as part of the fictional reality. Unless you have some stunning new take on it, the idea that HPL’s work masked an awareness of actual occult forces that more or less resemble the mythos has already been thoroughly explored.

I am in no way, shape or form looking for pastiches of Lovecraft’s style. We all know how painful that can be. Write the story in a voice of your own that’s appropriate to the piece.

You will note that this is a simpler concept than The New Hero, and thus, a much briefer brief. As you'll see when you pick up the book (which at present you can do through the Kickstarter for the Stone Skin Press launch), the writers came through with guns blazing, with exercises in clammy unease easily outnumbering the romps.

July 10, 2012

Shotguns v. Cthulhu Table of Contents Revealed

Stone Skin Press has already revealed the author roster for its upcoming second short fiction anthology, Shotguns v. Cthulhu. We haven’t yet tantalized you with the titles of its fourteen tales of action-packed cosmic horror...until now:

Kyla Ward, Who Looks Back?

Rob Heinsoo, Old Wave

Dennis Detwiller, Lithic

Chris Lackey, Snack Time

Dan Harms, The Host from the Hill

Steve Dempsey, Breaking Through

A. Scott Glancy, Last Things Last

Chad Fifer, One Small, Valuable Thing

Nick Mamatas, Wuji

Natania Barron, The One in the Swamp

Kenneth Hite, Infernal Devices

Dave Gross, Walker

Robin D. Laws, And I Feel Fine

Larry DiTillio, Welcome to Cthulhuville

Ekaterina Sedia, End of White

And yes, I included a story of my own in there. Simon made me do it.

As of this writing, the Kickstarter for the Stone Skin Press launch has just nudged past 80%. Go top it up, and watch Simon scramble for stretch goals.

July 09, 2012

Stone Skin Press Crowdfunding Round-Up

As is his wily, silver-coiffed wont, Simon Rogers has introduced considerable distraction to the final days of my vacation by launching the Kickstarter campaign for Stone Skin Press. Avenge me by heading over and making a pledge. The four ebook deal in particular is a steal. Bibliomanes among you may wish to snap up the various limited edition options.

As of this writing, we’re at the 57% mark after three days. But as the snake said of the scorpion, it’s the back half that’s the tricky part. Please join us in making this ambitious exercise in fictional boundary-hopping a reality.

When I return to work tomorrow I’ll have more to reveal about the Stone Skin line and the process that led us to it.

In the meantime, we’re highlighting the stories and iconic protagonists of The New Hero anthology. If you haven’t been glued to the Stone Skin site, here’s what you’ve missed so far:

Jonny Nexus’ character Pete Stone conjoins two streams of British heroism, nodding with equal affection toward both Dan Dare and James Bond.

Ed Greenwood’s Midnight Knight, a contemporary adventuress attended by an able crew of Ren-faire sidekicks, is a departure for Ed, yet also quintessentially Greenwoodian.

Kenneth Hite makes his fiction debut as you figure he might, with Ray Cazador, a hero who prowls the mean streets between historical probabilities. Ken seizes the joy of the alternate history genre with a conceit allowing him to elegantly set aside its overused devices.