Topatocon!

PotatoDerby

I went to an awesome con this weekend! Topatocon took place for the first time in Easthampton, right in my backyard. My wonderful fiancee talked me into going, and it sounded like my kind of thing anyway. The focus was mostly on comics, although there was an excellent “Labyrinth of Games” to check out, featuring awesome work by local indie game designers. I may as well give them a shout-out, since they’re friends of mine, and they are currently putting out new material!

I bought some older stuff by Emily Care-Boss, who is quite prolific and always coming up with new classics in indie games. She is probably most famous for her “Romance Trilogy,” a group of games that create stories about dating, relationships, and the fun complications that arise from these. I know her as one of the best GM’s I’ve ever had the pleasure of gaming with, an excellent moderator, and master of the social space of gaming.

Also present and tabling their work were Hannah Shaffer and Joshua A.C. Newman, talented game designers and two of the most fascinating people I’ve had the pleasure to meet. Hannah is the creator of Questlandia, a game about characters struggling to change their fantasy-world society as it collapses around them. Joshua is the mastermind behind Shock, the game of social science fiction, and a neat miniatures war game that uses Legos.

They are both now experimenting with what could be called “nanogames,” usually meaning a set of rules printed on a folding card, small enough to fit in your wallet. The first iteration I’ve seen of this is Epidiah Ravachol’s Vast and Starlit, and the concept has apparently blown up from there. Joshua’s new micro-game is Lover of Jet and Gold. It’s meant to create adventure stories in the vein of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series, and it’s a bit thicker than the average wallet-book (it has pages!). He has incidentally called this his favorite work, so check it out! Hannah’s game is called Birds are Amazing (they are amazing). It is fun and hilarious, and once begun, it never ends! So be careful, it’s a bit of a commitment, but the kind I am okay with making.

Anyway, so Topatocon was great, and my game designer friends are awesome. I came in contact with many cool people, artists, writers, leaders of movements and budding schools of philosophy, that sort of thing. I guess the main attraction was the presence of many contributors (including the editor) of the Smut Peddler anthology. This is a collection of woman-centric porn comics, many of them written by women. The editor is C. Spike Trotman, otherwise known as Spike. She’s the creator of the weird and wonderful Templar, Arizona, and a fantastic editor. I talked with her briefly about her anthologies, and watched an excellent talk that she took part in. The subject was women and gender issues in comics, I don’t think the recording has been posted yet, but when and if I can find it, I’ll post that stuff for sure.

Other highlights!

  • Meeting Jess Fink (again) – Smut Peddler contributor, creator of Chester 5000, and master of erotic comics, she’s also really nice and approachable!
  • Listening to Kate Leth‘s Live Podcast – She’s a comics creator who has worked on Bravest Warriors and Adventure Time comics. She is really funny, and also has lots of insightful things to say about comics and other things. Her live podcast featured Erica Henderson, the artist working with Ryan North on Squirrel Girl (she’s pretty great too).
  • Panel on World-building with Evan Dahm – This was so cool, SO COOL. First of all, meeting Evan Dahm was great, he’s such a nice, humble person. His talk was excellent, well thought-out and well presented. It got me thinking about the world-building process, how fantasy literature has changed over the years, and how to engage critically with your own fantasy work. I am working on several projects that could be described as fantasy, so it was all very relevant. I enjoyed this so much that I’m probably going to do my next post about world-building.

I had a good weekend, I learned a lot, and spent way too much money on comics. A lot of the guests at Topatocon will also be appearing at the Cambridge-based MICE (Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo), including Evan Dahm. If you missed out this weekend, check that out!

That is all for today methinks. Adieu!

Image courtesy of the Galt Museum and Archives on the Common’s Photostream, no known copyright restrictions. I chose it because Topatocon kind of reminds me of potatoes.

Current Projects, part deux

OctopusRunning

Here we are again in the Castle! So what am I working on these days? More like what am I thinking about these days…

More Dreams of the Neath

I have mentioned before on the blog that I am a great fan of the Fallen London browser game, and I have been spending a lot of time lurking on the forums lately. The impression I get is that FL’s fan community is full of weird, intelligent, vibrantly creative individuals, many of whom also enjoy tabletop role-playing games. Good for me! A lot of fans have been expressing a desire to see a genuine adaptation of the games into RPG form for years. Some have even taken a crack at it themselves. I recently skimmed the Fate Core version by Kyle and Chris Heidtman-Thayer (it’s a fan project), and was very impressed at the layout, clear and accessible writing, and fairly decent editing. As fan works go, it’s way above average.

Something I haven’t seen anyone attempt yet, though many have proposed the idea, is creating a Fallen London RPG that uses it’s own rules, uniquely tailored to the experience of exploring the Neath. If you think of the browser game in the terms of tabletop game design, it’s a narrative-focused experience that uses a “percentile mechanic” for challenges. In other words, when you attempt something, you are shown your chances of success expressed in percents, depending on how good your relevant quality is.

Many venerable, and not-so-venerable RPG’s use rules like this with dice, including Call of Cthulhu, Runequest, and Eclipse Phase. These are, incidentally, some of my favorite games, but they have their issues. A game built around percentiles can feel limiting, and doing anything interesting with these mechanics often amounts to “+10%, -20%, divided by 3 rounding up, etc.” My experience with these systems is that they don’t do a good job of representing supernatural or science-fictional elements, and they also have the strange problem of creating characters that are really bad at everything. This is especially true in Runequest, an epic fantasy game in which your character is just as likely to trip over a log and die than anything else.

So when I approached the problem of designing a Fallen London game, I wanted to create something simple, accessible, and fun, while still capturing the feel of the browser game and Sunless Sea. I guess it helps to express these things in design goals –

  1. Make use of StoryNexus – The engine that Fallen London runs on lends itself well to RPG’s, in my opinion. It’s Qualities are similar to ideas like Aspects in the Fate Core RPG, or the Qualities in Chad Underkoffler’s PDQ system. You have these bullet points that sum up interesting things about your character in a nutshell, and the players get to make them up. A Fine Piece in the Game, or Plagued by Weasels, for example. This would make fans of the original game (the kinds of people I’d be potentially marketing to) feel at home with the mechanics.
  2. Keep it Simple/Different is Okay – So I was going off on a tangent about everything wrong with percentile systems. My first thought was to just apply a simple skill system that uses these, but then I realized that I should make a chart of rating-versus-difficulty of certain tasks, modifiers, and so on, until my head started spinning. It’s been done before, and it wasn’t done that well. I figured as long as a game can encourage good storytelling, and at least feel like the source material, it doesn’t have to be an exact adaptation. So I went with dice-pools, six-sided dice, and a “pass-fail” approach.
  3. Conflict can also be Abstract – I was thinking about Fate Core’s Aspects, and what they represent in the wider world of RPG design. Most traditional¬† RPG’s follow a pattern of building characters out of stats (the character’s intrinsic and physical attributes), and skills (the things they are good at, or can become good at). Fate’s Aspects are like stats, but instead of representing a character’s intrinsic nature, they cover the things that make them interesting to the story. And they are usually created in a DIY fashion. Fate also takes an interesting approach to conflict and challenges in the story. Usually a player rolls dice against a target difficulty to measure success, but they can aid this process by creating Aspects on the fly, that are tied to the situation rather than their characters. For example, if someone is facing a tough enemy, they could just keep hacking at them, or they could create the Aspect “Swinging Wildly on a Chandelier,” to produce all kinds of randomness. This encourages creativity and good storytelling, and Fallen London has a vaguely similar system in place with some of it’s stories. In FL, if you are solving a case, or preparing for a challenging duel or hunt, you have to spend time building up a quality like, “Collecting Evidence” or “The Hunt is On.” I thought it would be fun to incorporate this system into my game’s conflicts, and make that the default method for any complex or long-term challenge.
  4. Dat Feel – If I ever write up these ideas in a proper document, I think it’s essential to capture the feeling of Fallen London in the writing and the art. I love the original game because it’s writing is intelligent, funny, and very strange. I may not work for Failbetter Games, but if I’m working with their world, I want to do it, and them, justice.

So here are my rough, ROUGH notes on the game system. I’m continually tweaking them, and I hope to test them out with my roommates soon. I’m including this version because I’m interested in recording my progress, and maybe a kind reader will playtest them one day. At least it’s short.

Fallen London RPG

That’s all!

Current Projects, part 1

BurntColumn

So, above all else, this is supposed to be a writer’s blog. It’s becoming more and more things (I changed the subtext to “a blog of many things“), and I had the realization that I shouldn’t get bogged down in maintaining the blog if it’s detracting from actual creative projects. Much as I love talking about my hobbies…

Anyway, for this post I want to lay down some persistent ideas that I’ve had for stories, worlds/settings, or just experiments in form and medium. Some of these I’ve actually started working on. So here we go.

Gettin’ Busy with the Byzzies

I’m fascinated with the Byzantine Empire, and I always have been. It’s a unique time, place, culture, collection of characters, etc, very different from what you’d find in the ancient or medieval western civilizations. And many people in the West have either never heard of it, or know next to nothing about it, which boggles the mind! It lasted for over a thousand years, so it’s hard to understand why it’s become such a footnote in history.

Anyway, it’s been a favorite subject of mine for years now, and I’ve probably read enough material on it to write a solid research paper. I recently began work on a Storynexus game set in Constantinople, but it’s on hiatus for the foreseeable future. Way too big and ambitious, and it would end up being a free-to-play game. I’m at a point in my life where I have less free time, and it grows increasingly more valuable. So it would be nice if I could get paid when I give it up, y’know?

SO, the big story that I wanted to tell in the Purple Chamber was of the Fourth Crusade, and the events leading up to it. This is one of the most tragic events of the era, with thousands of innocent people killed, and the greatest city in the world more or less destroyed. Although the Byzantines survived for roughly another two centuries, this was basically the end for them, everything kinda sucked from that point on.

So why does it make a good story? It’s the stuff of Greek tragedy for one thing. Everything leading up to it was caused by hubris, greed, misunderstanding and misplaced faith. It also has a cast of fascinating characters, readily supplied for me to use. For one there’s the corrupt Angelos family, the rulers of the Empire. They include an incompetent Emperor who blinded his brother and stole the throne, his scheming wife who is the true power behind said throne, and his lascivious daughter who is in bed with the man plotting a coup. The only problem is that everyone is named Alexios, but that’s what nicknames are for.

This particular set of events also has a compelling set of mysteries to explore, mainly concerning how much of it was accident, and how much was… CONSPIRACY (gasp)! When you read the story of how the Crusade happened, there’s a lot that doesn’t make sense, but you tend to notice how well everything worked out for the “villains” of the story, meaning the Venetians. The shrewd merchants of Venice are represented by the cunning Doge, Enrico Dandolo. This guy is the perfect antagonist, and I feel like I have to make this project, if just to tell his story.

Okay, so currently, I’m writing a screenplay on-and-off. It’s a total fantasy project, I don’t know how it will ever get made into anything (I envisioned it as an animated web series). But I love this stuff too well to just let it stew in my head. Maybe I can turn it into a play, or a comic, or something, we’ll see. But I’m having fun with it, and hopefully it continues that way. I’m focusing on many of the events and characters I mentioned, and also adding a few of my own. My current protagonist is a young eunuch slave, recently brought to Constantinople. It seemed like an interesting way to explore gender stuff in a new way, and also shake things up with a non-traditional main character. I think it also helps to have an outsider perspective in this setting, which is kind of unfamiliar and weird to contemporary Western audiences.

More? More.

This is but one of many ideas I’m working on, but apparently I need to share every bit of minutia, so I think this is going to be another “serial” set of posts. There’s still plenty of great stories to share about the Byzantines, but that should probably be it’s own thing. Until next time…

Image courtesy of the Cornell University Library, no known copyright restrictions

Mythopoeia

Janus

Lately I’ve been thinking about the old days. And by the old days, I mean partly Classical Greece, but also my college days. There’s a connection y’see. I went to school in a private liberal arts college in the Pioneer Valley, western Massachusetts. I still inhabit the area today. It was a wacky school, where there were no grades, no course requirements, and people could major in frisbee. Lately I feel like a lot of people around me have been expressing negative opinions of private schools, and college education in general. While my general feeling is that state or government schools should be able to have the freedom to try more experimental methods, available to everyone, I see where folks are coming from.

It’s expensive, really expensive. I’m still in debt (and I know I’m not alone in that), and my bachelor of arts in theater doesn’t have the widest range of applications on the job market. Would I do it all again? Yes, in a heartbeat! College, to me, is all about two things (maybe three). The first is earning your very valuable piece of paper, which without (even though it is a bachelor of arts degree) I would have had considerable trouble finding decent work. The second, and much more important part in my opinion, is personal growth and learning for it’s own sake. There are a crazy amount of opportunities you can gain access to through higher education, mainly in the form of knowledgeable, unique, fascinating people that you likely wouldn’t meet otherwise. An actual college or university also has incredible resources, in the form of books, other media, or training. The connections you form (basically the third thing) can also serve you well later on. I’ve found that knowing the right people can be just as useful, if not more so, than having the right training or degree.

All of this is true to a certain extent with more affordable options like community college. I love community college, and I feel like I was encouraged to work harder and smarter in CC than anywhere else. But it also felt like it was about career building more than anything else, and to some extent it was more socially isolating. Maybe it was because I was usually the youngest person in my classes.

ANYWAY, I’m going off topic with this post. I’m really proud of the work I did in undergrad, and I hope to return to the dramatic arts sometime soon. I was a theater major, but Hampshire College is an interdisciplinary sort of place, and you’re encouraged to mix and match to create your own majors. I mostly was into acting and writing, with a little directing and set design near the end. I started on traditional playwriting, and then started moving towards monologue, physical theater, and something that could be described as “performative ensemble memoir” (I never called it that while I was working on it).

For inspiration, I turned to the myths and legends of old. Greek, Norse, Mayan, Indian, anything I could get my hands on. Study of the humanities, ancient epics, mythological cycles, and how the human race has used those stories in their art, that became the other part of my major. I decided to tell stories of my childhood and teenage years, and juxtapose them with ancient narratives. I was using stories from all over the world to create my own personal mythology, a mythopoeia. The terrifying nights of early childhood were a mirror to the tale of Orpheus, and my teenage struggles with depression and anxiety were placed beside Arjuna on the eve of his great battle.

I spent months writing the script, work-shopping it, gathering actors for an ensemble, directing, rehearsing, stressing. The experience was, honestly, life-changing, and I don’t believe it would have happened had I not made the decision to go to college. I struggled with my doubts, anxieties, and my fluctuating self-esteem, but in the end the production was a roaring success. I performed the show several times over the course of a weekend, and the response was very positive. Whenever I have doubts about my creative self, or if I ever feel like things are going stagnant, I can always look back on that time with pride. I’ve included a small excerpt from the performance.

(link currently broken, sorry)

Part of what made the show a little different was the way I used the ensemble. They had a kind of fluid role, playing different members of my family, mythological characters, kids from school, and so on. It was a “one man ensemble show,” where I was there to tell the story, but was frequently interrupted by these other characters, or otherwise separate from them. I got this idea from the play “Well” by Lisa Kron, where her mother keeps breaking into her monologue. Another major inspiration was the play Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl (one of my favorite playwrights ever). Here she takes a myth and makes it her own, keeping the characters, but inserting her own deeply personal story about her and her father. I was lucky enough to see it performed, but only after I finished my play.

Anyway, that’s enough reminiscing I think. I should be using this time to write some new plays! Until next time!

Image courtesy of the Internet Book Archive’s image photostream, no known copyright restrictions.

Instant Playwriting

TampaTheater

Right out of college I landed a job with a performing arts summer camp. It was good fun, and I felt like I was putting my degree to good use. But more than that, it was the perfect place to try out some new ideas and methods with my writing and approach to teaching. I got very experimental, and came out of that summer with some well-tested ideas that have since come in handy. In particular, that summer was the first time I tried out my “Instant Playwriting” lesson.

Instant Playwriting is a method for producing a short play or skit with a group of kids, and then putting it on. In all honesty, it’s probably nothing new or revolutionary in how it approaches story-building, but it is something I came up with independently, and it works. I’ve pulled it off with groups as young as pre-school, and as old as 12-13. I call it “Instant” because it’s a streamlined process and produces results in a fairly short time. It requires a bit of work on the part of the facilitator, but the trade-off is that the kids feel like they have created the story themselves (which, in no small part, they have).

The specifics of how to work through this lesson vary with each age group, but I always start with a brainstorming session. Before you even go through the following steps, lay down some ground rules about how the group communicates. Make sure it’s fair, that everyone’s voice is heard, and that there are no bad ideas. Maybe it’s just that I tend to work with sassy little children, but I often deal with overly critical group dynamics. Don’t let the loudest voices overcome the original ones, or the group’s story may suffer. I have everyone raise hands, and when we vote to keep or discard ideas, we use a blind vote in which eyes are covered.

(Note: the following process can be done within the space of about three hours, but that is intense. I usually spread this lesson out over the course of a week, and an hour or so each day devoted to brainstorming, practice, and creation of costumes and backgrounds. That helps mitigate the nervous breakdowns.)

With all that in mind, here are my steps for brainstorming. Every story needs to have these basic components: setting, characters, conflict.

  • Setting – I would say this part is actually optional, but I like to include it, and here’s why: most groups already have fixed ideas about the story they want to create, and what characters they want to be. Even worse, they might have formed one or more cliques and started batting ideas around before you engage them in structured brainstorming (and it’s hard to stop this). Setting is the widest focus for storytelling, and writing down a few different ideas for a setting, hopefully very different ones, can get the group thinking outside the box. Get a few ideas down, and then vote on the favorite. Something I do frequently (because these rules are made to be broken), is combine two or more settings into a new one. This is especially helpful if the group is largely split on their favorite ideas.
  • Characters – Come up with an expansive list of characters that fit loosely into the chosen setting. Kids love this part, because they get to pick whatever they want to be (and you should almost always let them be that thing). It’s like a dream version of a real play, where they don’t have to audition, they just say, “I want to be the robot unicorn.” Be prepared to create ensembles of characters that have a similar theme. My regular drama group at the after-school program is mostly girls, and they always want to be sisters or goddamn princesses. This process creates very simple stories that don’t require a single protagonist or “lead,” so this is fine. Make a story with twelve princesses who are all sisters, it’ll be okay. If every single member of the group winds up in the princess club, that just means you have to be the bad guy. You can end this part of brainstorming when you have figured out who every group member wants to be. If you have some shy characters who don’t want to act, explain that the group also needs help with set, costumes, and backstage support.
  • Conflict – Also know as “The Problem.” This is what the whole story will be built on. There is a problem, and the forty brave princesses must work together to solve it. I find it helpful to highlight examples from fairy tales to explain how this basic principle is present in all stories (Snow White has mommy issues! Aladdin is poor! The Beast is a beast!). And if they have trouble coming up with their own problems, transplanting one from these stories is fine. My group seems to love tales of revenge against evil, domineering adults. The central conflict will also help determine the basic scene structure, which transitions us into the next part of brainstorming.
  • Scenes – Keep things simple, all you need is this:
  1. A scene which introduces the main characters and the conflict.
  2. One or more scenes that introduce “minor challenges,” or obstructions to the solving of the main conflict. If you have minor or peripheral characters (like that robot unicorn) these are good places to introduce them so they can either help or hinder the main characters. As the protagonists bypass these minor challenges, they build up to the finale.
  3. A resolution scene in which they solve the main conflict, often confronting an antagonist along the way. Everyone lives happily ever after, the princesses defeat the evil drama teacher and make him pay for his cruelty.

That’s it. After that you can settle down and make costumes and a set. I find that construction paper hats work well in all scenarios. A big sheet of poster paper and some markers will do nicely for a backdrop (you’re not putting on Hamlet).

Narration is nearly always the key to these things pulling together. You already have a story that your group came up with, so just narrate it to the audience. Write it up word for word if you need to, or just improvise! If this is a smaller project with a limited production time, you may be doing narration for the whole thing. If some of your actors want to improvise lines, simply point out the gaps in your narration where that would be appropriate. When I do this with really young kids, they usually don’t have lines, unless they’re 5-year-old Laurence Oliviers. It’s all physical acting on their parts, so all you need to practice is blocking. And blocking can be really, really simple. You have 68 princesses? Have them stand in a row facing the audience, and have them take turns interacting with other characters in each scene, otherwise keep them in that row. It’s not very exciting, but it’s fast and easy, and they feel like they’re acting.

Of course, this method doesn’t have to produce simple, formulaic skits driven by adult narration. I have used this brainstorming method as the basis for writing actual plays, tailored specifically to the group. I’m going to include one of these plays for the use and enjoyment of educators and people with bored kids. Even though I wrote this play, the kids came up with the story, and played the characters they wanted to play. They felt like it was their own, and were thus more enthusiastic during production. Obviously writing a play is a lot of work, but I will say that it was a lot faster and easier when I had the whole story laid out before me the way they wanted it. All I had to do was plug in snappy dialogue.

If you use the play for anything, please give me credit, and/or link people to this page. That’s all!

Theatre

Image courtesy of Florida Memory, no known copyright restrictions