Archive for January, 2007

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Awards Matter to Me More Than I Like to Admit

January 31, 2007

Some time a couple of years ago, I forget exactly when, I set a little goal for myself. I wanted to win an Outie, the annual roleplaying-game awards that author, aficionado, lush and occultist Ken Hite doles out in his Out of the Box column at Gaming Report. So, now I’ve done that. This year, Hite named the Requiem Chronicler’s Guide for Vampire: The Requiem as the Best Supplement of 2006.

If you’re not a gamer, “best supplement” may not sound so great. It sounds like maybe some kind of dietary award. But in our little corner of gamerdom, any book that expands on or supports an existing game can be called a supplement. So this is a pretty good thing to win.

The thing for me was seeing “Will Hindmarch’s [Book Title]” right there among the names of writers and game designers I admire. Better than that is what Ken says about the book itself. He writes,

You cannot read this and not have your GM-ing skills improved, if only by osmosis. It should be mandatory for all Vampire Storytellers, and quite frankly, for most game designers.

This is a good day. Now, onto whatever’s next.

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Storytelling Game Design Musings

January 30, 2007

Wrote this on a game forum earlier today. I apologize for the lingering code, but the hours, they are against me:

Flexibility and adaptability, without sacrificing quality color text and mechanical systems worthy of quoting and reappropriating in your own home stories, is what our scene-based structure is all about. The regular, but versatile, format of the scenes is meant to make it as easy as possible for you to jettison one part of a story without a bunch of other stuff unraveling. Even better, you can add in other scenes from other stories to easily dial-up the amount of investigation or action (or whatever else) in your stories.

It’s what we’re essentially all doing when we adapt published adventures for our own games anyway, right? We’re trying to scratch out the stuff we don’t want and squeeze in our own stuff, whether we do it before play or in the thick of the game. I’m just trying to create some common language for how we do it. We want to systematize it so the process is easier to talk about and easier to share.

This ties into the community building idea. Community building is another one of the big goals of these new adventures, and one of my particular missions. This common language makes it that much easier to talk about how you ran an adventure, or how you’re thinking about running it.

To use an example from “Chicago Workings,” you might move the foot-chase scene elsewhere, or basically run it twice if the characters have multiple encounters with the, uh, perpetrators in that scene. (I say, trying to avoid spoilers.) I might cut that scene out entirely.

We could compare notes, share advice and appreciate each other’s “this is how my story turned out” anecdotes by comparing the flow of scenes (and substituting scene names for the shorthands here):

“When I ran Parlor Games, it ended up being going A > B > E > F > C, then I tossed in scene G from this other adventure, and ended with a climactic scene of my own design.”

“What scene is that?” I ask.

And then you show me the scene already sketched out in a format I can understand and plug right into my own games if I want. Scenes become a shareable commodity. Constructing stories and telling stories not only get recognized as being different skills, but as being skills at all, rather than raw talent.

In the writer’s bible for the SAS, this idea gets mentioned more than once. It’s my mantra: Storytelling is a skill, which means you can get better at it. I hope that these adventures will help new Storytellers get better at it, but I am [i]sure[/i] that the peer review of multiple Storytellers comparing notes on stories that they can all reference [i]will[/i] help us all become better Storytellers, whether newbies or veterans.

[QUOTE=WhiteRat;6875361]What kind of “assumptions” and “preconceptions” are you anticipating? Could you give some examples? What does the guide do to discourage such assumptions?[/QUOTE]

The preconception that holds up most published adventures, and that I think interferes with the dynamic between a lot of Storytellers and players, is that of the “proper” story. The idea that a gaming group is supposed to achieve the proper telling of whatever tale the ST devised before play is, if you’ll pardon the expression, bullshit.

The story doesn’t exist until you tell it. The villain dies if he dies, and escapes if he is allowed to escape. Players are not cast to fulfill the destinies laid out for them in a script.

The flowcharts and scene breakdowns we use are meant to not only make plotting easy to handle for Storytellers, but easy to revise on the fly in reaction to player choices. I’m a big believer that plots are dull, utilitarian tools. What people mean, so often, when they talk about “plot” is “story.” They’re not the same thing.

Thus, the adventures we’re creating don’t hinge on a series of escalating encounters leading, necessarily, to a boss battle. (That’s certainly possible, as it is a reliable scheme for rising tension and a violent climax.) Rather, we try to make these stories hinge on tough choices — the vital mechanism in all good gameplay, in my opinion.

For example, I don’t know how my adventure, [b]The Resurrectionists[/b], ends. The final scene gives the players a climactic choice to make, but there’s no success/fail element there. Instead, it’s about choice and consequence. Keeping adventures about choice and consequence facilitates player freedom.

What the story is about thematically — what moral, if any, it has — depends on what your players choose. The adventure format strives to create an environment and scenic structure that create a consistent atmosphere and raise thematic questions which will intuitively provoke more high-falutin’ dramaturgial stuff like subtext. That is, many of the scenes presented in [b]The Resurrectionists[/b] are, on some level, about assumptions of hostility and containing ugly situations, but whether it’s a story about how assumptions and containment ruin us or make us lords depends on what happens when you play.

So, I guess it’s mostly about flexibility and creating a kind of storytelling structure that’s easy to talk about, reorganize, share and expand.

My hope is that people will share new variations on our published stories by combining scenes from multiple adventures into compelling new adventures that we wouldn’t have thought of ourselves. (And, of course, I hope they’ll do this without illegally sharing our files.) To help make that happen, you’ll see more developments in the future about how the SAS leads into other community-building plans we’ve got on the drawing board.

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A New Kind of Weekend

January 28, 2007

As part of the new health regime, both physical and mental, I attacked this weekend with alien tactics. Alien for me. I feel positively pedestrian, though.

This weekend has gone to exercising (walking, hand-weights) and cleaning, which have resulted in some better-than-normal sleep for me. I’m waking up feeling rested in a way that I’m not used to. It used to be that I’d have to stay awake for 24 or 30 hours to get this kind of sleep. But you already know all about how the sleep and the exercise and all that work out together, don’t you?

I also set aside some time to play a game. This is big news. I didn’t just play it to procrastinate, I made time to play it. (In this case, the game is Hitman: Blood Money, which I’ll get around to reviewing for you sooner or later.) Then, after playing said game, I sat down and produced 1,200 words of new prose for work in pretty much record time. Then I played some more, and then I wrote some more, like crazy.

Overall, my productivity this weekend was less than I usually expect from a Saturday and Sunday — I basically try to work full-time on the weekends, and it’s been maybe more taxing than I’ve admitted. Also, I haven’t been very successful. In this case, though, while I stamped out fewer words that I might’ve hoped, I did it in very good time. Maybe there is something to this exercise and sleeping stuff you all have been talking about. Only took me 28 years to figure it out.

Now, as one other part of my “feel like a living person and I’ll work better” plan for this year, I’m sitting in the Spotted Dog, drinking Newcastle and having, let’s say, supper. Then it’s back home and back to work before Monday is laid down on my shoulders like a barbell. See you then.

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The Denim Apocalypse

January 25, 2007

My wife dreamt that the world was experiencing a denim shortage. Only the wealthy could afford to wear dungarees. It was an international crisis.

I picture it in a burnt-out landscape. Leather punks with sawed-off shotguns sacked fortified Old Navies, cutting through helmeted guards to plunder vaults of blue cotton. Folded bundles of stonewashed boot-cut gold come out in brown-paper bags splattered with blood. The punk chieftain strides out through the broken gates, his hair spiked up in a huge radial crown, his tattooed hands hoisting a double-barrelled breech-loading break-open scepter, his feather cape draped over a new, pre-worn, distressed denim jacket. Its buttons gleam like amber in the nuclear sun.

It’s like Waterworld, except, you know, with jeans. Instead of a water-world.

So if the world slips into a chaotic age of denim-mad barbarism, remember: my wife totally called it.

(Music: The Good, The Bad and the Queen, “Kingdom of Doom”)

(PS: I went to the Old Navy site for some linkage, and it crashed Safari so hard the thing reset my home page and disabled tabbed browsing. What the hell was that?)

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My Brother, Defender of Sorkin

January 23, 2007

JORDAN: Hang on, ’cause I’m curious. What if you did tank tonight? What do you think would happen?

MATT: Strangers wouldn’t like me, friends wouldn’t like me, the network wouldn’t like me, the press wouldn’t like me, women in general wouldn’t like me, and Harriet wouldn’t like me.

[“The Option Period,” Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip]

Well I’ll be. This afternoon I read Ken Levine’s response to Aaron Sorkin’s recent comments about the widespread criticism of Studio 60. This was the first I’d heard of Sorkin’s critic-diminishing talk at a recent press event at the Studio 60 offices.

But now, lo and behold, my brother Dan has weighed in on the issue, and been quoted in the LA Times. Unfortunately, he is quoted, at least in part, by way of a Myspace page, and you know I don’t approve of those Myspaces things, but still. LA “gossip rag” (I feel like an insider when I use that phrase!) singled him out of the LAT article, and contains several good links to follow for more overblown Sorkin drama.

Since this is my own damn space, though, I’ll tell you what I think of Studio 60 and its critics. I’ve seen every episode of the show yet aired and expect to see every episode they ever air. To the critics who say it’s stilted, sometimes flailing, smug and not yet on even footing, I agree. But it’s fascinating to watch Sorkin work, the cast is stellar and scene-to-scene I always find things to appreciate.

To those who say that Studio 60‘s premise doesn’t work because it is not a proper vehicle for debating important issues, like The West Wing was, I have to ask: Do you make the same complaints about Veronica Mars or Grey’s Anatomy? Why is it a requirement for Studio 60‘s success as entertainment that it wrestle with issues like The West Wing did? Once he’s written a show about a US President, he’s not allowed to write something smaller? I don’t get it.

I watch scenes like the one in tonight’s episode, where Steven Weber’s executive makes his case in front of the network’s parent company’s Board of Directors, and I see opportunity enough for the kind of revealing workplace drama that I like in shows like ER, at least. As a workplace “dramedy” (I hate using that word), I like Studio 60. As a thriller, I grant you, it is no good. But from Sorkin, whose writer characters are all in search of outside approval, can we really be so surprised that he might not take anonymous criticism so well?

And at least Mark McKinney is there now to help the sketches not suck out loud.

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Flashback

January 22, 2007

It happens for no reason, now and again. Taylor Walker told me a story in college (I forget most of it) about one of his history teachers from high school. His impression of this man I’ve never met stuck on my brain like a leaf on a tire, and every so often it rolls around again.

The history teacher talks with a strained, high voice in the back of his throat, like he’s pretending to be a woman who is trying to finish a sentence before her breath runs out. He says, “There was a time in European history when you couldn’t throw a cat into a ballroom without hitting a Hapsburg.”

Maybe now that I’ve written it down I can get it out of my head for a while.

(Music: The Decemberists, “Song For Myla Goldberg (Live)”)

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Gems from CNN.com

January 21, 2007

(Things continue to be crazy at work and in general. For the sake of it, I post another half-finished post from my drafts folder:)

Headline: “Jolie shocked by Madonna attacks”

Do they mean, “Jolie, shocked by Madonna, attacks,” do you think? Is that a personal shock or maybe like a static shock, from the carpet? Perhaps they mean, “Jolie shocked by Madonna’s attacks,” though I haven’t heard anything about Madonna attacking Jolie or anyone else since.

Headline: “Latest winter blast hits; at least 8 die”

Presumably, in this case, the writer means “8 or more die.” In which case, if we’re reporting facts (CNN? Hmm? What’re we doing?), perhaps the headline should just read, “8 die,” until some other number is verified. Otherwise I’ll assume that CNN believes 8 deaths is the silver lining on the most recent winter storm. I mean, sure, it snowed but, hey, at least eight people died, right?

From the body of an article: “The island has a new airport to replace the one that was engulfed by lava flows and a 700-seat concert hall.”

How’d they get all the airplanes out of that concert hall, I wonder?

(Music: Tarkio, “Standing Still”)