21 Aug

Off-Topic Tuesday: Silence is Electrum

I frequently discuss the strange dichotomy of my writer’s desire to remain undisturbed and my baser human need for socializing. It’s probably because I feel that tug-of-war all of the time, whether it’s related to writing or not. The recent round of “care and feeding of an introvert/extrovert” blog entries and subsequent Facebook links just went entirely around me. I don’t feel like either, or maybe I feel like both. It’s hard to say, hard enough that I think the label is pretty pointless. (And I’m wary of people who deliberately seek labels for themselves.) I’m usually very social when I need to be social, and pretty antisocial the rest of the time.

Here's Johnny!
“Who feels like being sociable?”

People often seem surprised when they realize I have “the other half” of what they knew me as. People who are accustomed to the grouchy asshole me are shocked to see me laughing and carrying on at a party. And the ones who met me at the party are surprised to hear what I sound like on the phone when they call while I’m working. Most accounts portray me as, well… a grouchy asshole. (I’ve tried to explain that if I was as irritated as I sounded, I wouldn’t have even answered the phone but, apparently, that’s not the point.) Continue reading

3 Aug

Kickstart the Weekend: Monte Cook’s A+

Monte Cook A+A few weeks ago, Monte Cook proposed an interesting effort for the month of August. Check it out. Because you might have noticed some negativity on the internet over, I don’t know, the past ALL TIME FOREVER. It’s part of the reason I never spent any time in forums, didn’t bother with the discussion threads that accompany most articles on the internet, and absolutely refused to ever look at another comment made on a YouTube video. Admittedly, I have a pretty grim view of humanity anyway but… come on, people. This is what we’re made of? Continue reading

31 Jul

Off-Topic Tuesday: Pearls of Wisdom

I’ve mentioned before that I sometimes await the publication of finished articles with some trepidation. (Don’t worry, that hasn’t changed.) But there’s an accompanying excitement that builds, especially when I don’t know the exact date of publication. Part of it is the thrill of success, of completing something. And part of it is the desire to see the accompanying artwork and cartography. After all, I have a vision of something in my head but, lacking all talent for the visual arts, when someone turns my villain into an actual image, it’s like magic to me. And there is a special place in the Seven Heavens (or Arcadia, or the Twin Paradises, or wherever their alignment has decreed) for the cartographers who turn my insane maps into something people can get excited about!

As a writer, though, I’m also eager to see what final edits were made to a piece. I read the published article side-by-side with my final manuscript to see what’s different. Now I know this is not always the way of things. Obviously, a short story’s final look does not surprise the author. But, for gaming material (particularly adventures, the majority of what I do when it comes to gaming material), there are mechanical issues, balance issues, and the results of playtesting that all come to bear in one place. And there are people who are far better at those things than I am. Although no amount of staring at a Ben Wootten or Jason Juta cover painting is going to make me a better artist, making note of the changes made to a creature, an encounter, or even a passage of text can make me a better author. Continue reading

24 Jul

Off-Topic Tuesday: Not Reading Comic Books Makes Superheroes Exciting

Legion of Super Pets
So, uhm, that happened.

I wasn’t much of a comic book reader growing up. I delved into some G.I. Joe and regularly picked up Akira and a few other Japanese-inspired titles for a little while. But, for the most part, I never got bit by the superhero bug. In fact, the first wave of superhero movies in the late 80’s and early 90’s actually turned me off to superheroes in a big way. Other than the mainstream characters and their most obvious rivals, I’d generally turn to one of my comic book friends when someone made a joke about The Legion of the Superpets.

I’ve sporadically seen some of the latest offerings in comic book movies in the theatres. (No, I haven’t seen The Avengers… but, really, that shouldn’t somehow ruin your day.) I’ve enjoyed many of them, in fact, as explosion-filled big screen entertainment. For movies like Thor, I don’t go in with high expectations and, as a result, I can enjoy a 114-minute popcorn binge accompanied by the sound his hammer makes when it connects with a frost giant. Good stuff.

A friend recently wanted to try out the new Marvel Heroic Roleplaying by Margaret Weis Productions. Better yet, he was going to run the game so I’d get to actually play a character. OK, I’m in! I read nothing in advance of our session: no rules, no Marvel background, not even a movie review on Rotten Tomatoes! Instead, I volunteered to be Iron Man (who I just had to Google to determine if he’s Iron Man or Ironman prior to typing that) because I have no problem playing an egotistical “hard-headed futurist” with a potential drinking problem. And because I saw Iron Man and Iron Man 2, and I like Robert Downey, Jr…

Not knowing anything about the comic book universe I was in actually increased my enjoyment of the game. It’s been a long time since I was able to discover things in a setting. Usually, I have a head full of knowledge that my character does not have. Even more often, I’m running the game so I have to have a head full of knowledge that all the characters have plus what they don’t! That said, there’s so much material in the game for fans of comics that I think they would get as much out of the game as I did, probably more.

Marvel Heroic RoleplayingIt’s been a long time since I tackled a brand new system and I have to say I loved the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying system. It’s incredibly narrative-based, something I’ve been trying to incorporate into my sessions with D&D Next (ugh, I hate that name, by the way). I want a player to tell me what his character is doing, not what he is doing. And that’s how I want to play in a game as well. Marvel Heroic Roleplaying works that way: say what you’re doing, then pull together the dice appropriate to your action. If you find yourself saying, “I attack” and reach for the same handful of dice you always do, you’re doing it wrong.

Better still, are the mechanics of success and failure. There is a back and forth between the heroes and the villains that prevents fights from becoming stale, one-sided affairs, but there is also a means to compensate for poor rolling. (Who has two natural 1’s and loves that rule? THIS GUY!) Better still, you can deliberately introduce an added possibility of failure to increase the dramatic tension, but this helps you accrue resources to pull off something spectacular as later in the scene.

I have to say, even if you aren’t a comic book fan, there’s a great deal to be learned from the design of this game’s mechanical side. It turns “pass/fail” into “exceed/pass/fail/fail-BUT…” and that makes for a genuinely exciting and engaging time. I would love to see these mechanics employed elsewhere but, to be quite honest, I could get used to being a playboy billionaire in a flying tank suit.

Also, if you’re interested in picking up the rules, DrivethruRPG is running their Christmas in July sale so it’s the perfect time. (Just do me a favor and pick it up through that link there. Thanks!)

Christmas In July at DTRPG

18 Jul

Off-Topic Tuesday: Siren Song

Yes, it’s Wednesday, I am aware of this. But I spent Tuesday trying to work while happy. There’s really no better way for me to be unproductive. I don’t write from my “happy place.” There’s rarely much there to write about. Or maybe I’m not equipped to pick up whatever broadcasts on that frequency. But, that’s not to say I don’t look forward to some joy ruining my writing mood.

ATHF SirensYesterday, that ruinous joy was a Neko Case concert. You might recall Neko from such influential moments as the death of a lobster-headed sea goddess of madness (Tightly, Red Tide) or the sinister illithid plot to send body snatchers from the moon (I Wish I Was the Moon). But maybe I should stress that it was her influence that brought those things to pass… quite indirectly. I think she would, at best, disavow any knowledge of these things; but, more than likely, she is legitimately (blessedly?) unaware of her role in sending fell creatures to destroy fantastical realms again and again. And that’s not even touching on her sway over my more conventional fiction.

Neko Case at Rams Head in Baltimore 7/17/12
Neko, doing what she does.

I love sad songs delivered from an honest place. As a writer, I only get to line up words on a page. The emotional outpouring gets steadily stripped down. It’s like peeling off the Band-aid slowly. That’s not my method. I’m more of a “punch myself in the leg and yank the thing off” sort. Writing pulls at the Band-aid’s edges, toys and tugs at them, until you worry you’ve done more harm than good. But I’m probably writing even this from the other side of the fence, where the grass seems brown and dry by comparison to the lush pastures of singers.

A performance looks like an emotional release, certainly much more than sitting in a little room alone with a keyboard does. But if I remain realistic, I imagine the process of getting there is similar. At some point, there was likely a small lonely room, a pen, and a guitar. But seeing someone sing those words? Goddamn that’s some green grass just past the diamonds of the chain links.

And before Neko even took the stage, Kelly Hogan performed. Another siren of the sad, beautiful song, her album I Like To Keep Myself In Pain is absolutely worth your time. And I think you can see her appeal to me, based on the title alone. And I’m so glad we got to jog her memory at the end of the set so we could hear her song, and my daily mantra, “We Can’t Have Nice Things.” Beyond the fact that some of these turns of phrase seem drawn straight from my brain (perhaps we should blame the lunar mind flayers, above), she can deliver a steady stream of one-liners and humorous non sequiturs so you don’t have to “ride [her] bummer” all night long. Personally, I think half the fun of feeling miserable is making jokes about it.

Kelly Hogan's Carl Brutananadilewski
“It’s called ‘I Wanna Rock Your Body,’ and then in parenthesis it says, ‘Til the Break of Dawn.'”

Plus, Kelly keeps a miniature Carl Brutananadilewski, like a tiny Buddha in sweatpants, on a little table beside her while she performs. When Carl fell over when the roadies moved things between sets, I warned the guy of the bad omens it portended. The NY Giants probably have a terrible season ahead of them… and I say that with all the confidence of a man who doesn’t follow football. But I saw tiny Carl-Buddha topple, and that shit can’t be good.

See all this joking around, though? This veritable levity? That’s a genuine problem. I have writing to do, serious writing, about awful human beings and the terrible things they do. And I sure as hell can’t do any of it while I’m smiling about the fact that my arms were resting on the stage while my two favorite singers performed less than ten feet away. Hearing their voices, seeing them feel their music, was beautifully heartbreaking…

Ahh, there it is… That pain of already fading memory. That’s something to work with, to get started with, at least.

Thank you, Neko and Kelly, for a remarkable show.

3 Jul

Off-Topic Tuesday: Altering the Fabric of Reality

Someone should tell the people in their singularity-proof bunkers that it’s OK to come out now…

When my wife catches me watching a particularly in-depth show about subatomic particles, or when she looks over my shoulder at a diagram of supergravity, she only asks questions to be polite. I can’t really blame her. Either that stuff is “your thing” or it’s not. But the best question she ever had, during an episode of “Through the Wormhole,” was simply, “How does any of this affect my daily life? If they make this discovery [the Higgs boson], what will that mean for me?”

My answer was spectacularly vague. After all, I’m not a scientist, I just enjoy listening to people who are explain to me what they do. But, to summarize, I explained that it’s a discovery that leads to innovations down the road, creating technology that potentially benefits us all. Like I said: spectacularly vague. Ultimately, it means a lot more to the scientists than it does to me.

Yellow-ass, long neck giraffe.
Once you’ve got unified field theory all wrapped up, listen to Violent J’s advice, and “take a time out, open up ya mind and then peep the giraffe.”

Yet the Higgs boson is going to have huge implications for my daily life, just like most startling scientific theories. It’s not because I think that scientists intend to use their newfound knowledge to create an Apple product that’s “cruelty free” and incorporates exciting new Bacon Port™ technology. Generally, I assume the first thing science attempts to do is to try using the technology to make something explode, preferably in a rival country. Then they try to eat it. If that doesn’t work, they shrink wrap it and sell it at the Dollar Store where it can blow the minds of juggalos nationwide.

Alright, maybe those aren’t the implications I’m looking for. But every time a scientist says, “this could mean x,” I immediately say, “What if it doesn’t?” And then I begin writing a story in my head. If the scientist says, “this certainly means x,” I automatically take that conclusion and run toward the extreme possibilities born of that notion. Good science makes for good stories, and strange science makes for better stories. Despite what the world’s fucktards skeptics had to say about it, the only singularity caused by turning on CERN’s Large Hadron Collider was due to crushing density of ideas that appeared in my head at once.

Setting aside the three obvious uses –it explodes, it’s edible, or it’s a children’s choking hazard– for a moment, there’s so many other great possibilities. An excellent novel, The Light of Other Days, takes a remarkable technology, a wormhole capable of transferring data instantaneously, and illustrates a great many unintended (and unexpected) consequences. Side effects fascinate me. The “repurposing” of inventions fascinates me. When this sort of thing happens, either with real or fictional technology, I can’t help but marvel at it.

But my favorite parts of the scientific shows I watch, and the books I read, are the parts that effectively say, “…and we don’t know anything past this point.” To me, that’s the sound of a starting gun.

19 Jun

Off-Topic Tuesday: Communities for Recluses (A Triptych of Rambling)

Two Reasons to Ask WHY?
“I just think certain things are meant to be done by yourself.”

I often advise people that writing is solitary business. That is, of course, based on my own personal experience. When I see a book written by two authors, I tend to be a bit baffled. In most cases, I can’t imagine the process that was used to produce the book in my hand. Nonfiction and scientific works seem plausible: a technical expert working alongside a wordsmith creating something that is both valid and readable. The same goes for autobiographies that receive the aid of a professional author. But once work strays into the fictional realm, I just scratch my head and wonder how it happens.

After all, it takes a lot of effort to simply remain focused (and remain kind) when I’m interrupted by another human being, even if it’s only for a minute, while I’m writing. Taking it to the (un)natural extreme, which is what I do, I just imagine two writers sitting side by side at a single keyboard, alternately pointing at the screen and tapping at the keys as they talk over one another. Not ideal. But apparently people make it work. And they probably accomplish it in some saner fashion than my “piano duet” method.

Although I’ve already expressed my opinion of writing-as-performance-art, a.k.a.: The Starbucks Method, I think there is a time for writers to gather, shamelessly, in public. After all, spending every day reminding yourself that you’re in this alone, results in the inevitable conclusion that, well, you’re all alone. Hearing from other lonely people can prove reassuring. There is hope in their success stories, and failures can finally become more comedy than tragedy with a sympathetic audience. Best of all, a gathering like that brings together a variety of perspectives as each writer has evolved in isolation, adapting in his or her own way to the demands of the business of writing.

Sci-fi SaturdayLast weekend at the York Emporium I had the opportunity to talk to several authors and artists, each with their own approach to their craft. Better yet, each had a well-conceived and deliberate approach to the operational aspects of their craft. Being a lowly, small-time freelancer, I couldn’t have been happier to get all these opinions in one place. Collecting anecdotes and great stories -also what I do- was just icing on the cake.

Thanks to Lawrence M. Schoen (who does a lot more than just talk and write about the Klingon language), the folks from Fortress Publishing (who are willing to do what it takes to get a cannoli), and cartoonist Dawn Griffin (who’s comic can be found here). Their insights, whether they knew they were imparting them or not, were valuable and their company highly entertaining. And special thanks to Jim of the York Emporium who puts on events like this, for a variety of genres, all year long!

After my talk, I had the opportunity to chat with some interested readers and the conversation turned to gaming in its early days. A clear difference between now and when I was playing role-playing games nearly thirty years ago is the difference in the community. Technology has connected all of those tiny pockets of gamers, sci-fi and fantasy fans, and the various tangential subcultures. It’s now much easier to bring those people together as a community. (Yes, conventions did it in the past, but that’s a post for another day…) Not only does it cement the culture, but it promotes the expansion and inclusiveness of the culture. I think it’s a good thing that my in-laws watch The Big Bang Theory and my non-gamer friends post about “A Game of Thrones” in their Facebook feeds.

Cave Troll
“As long as we don’t meet in real life, I don’t have to act like a human being!”

But it’s easy to lose sight of positives of the interconnected nature and growing inclusiveness of the community now. The negative aspects of what the internet can do to a culture are often glaringly obvious. (Sadly, a bit of looking around just these past two weeks reveals some of the ugliest sides of that behavior.) I think personal connection goes a long way towards moving in that positive direction and face to face interactions, outside the technology, help to further the cause.