Saturday, 30 November 2013

The View From Here

It's a funny thing time, I'm never sure if it goes too slowly or too fast.

Half way up my mountain, it seems as if this semester has gone in a blur of the other currency, and that I've been struggling to keep up. I'm doing Screenwriting this term and, if I'm honest, I've found it hard. Film doesn't feel like my natural language, I like film but I struggle to watch anything for too long; people who know me know that I'm not one for telly. I can only really settle to watching something when I'm at the cinema or what I'm watching is animated. Otherwise, if I'm honest, just sitting watching feels too passive, I prefer the more active, intimate, experience of reading. And I'm picky anyway, there are huge swathes of films I've not watched just because they have 'that guy' in them (asking me to remember actors' names is like asking me to do nuclear physics - doomed from the start, unless it's someone like Edward Woodward or Christopher Lee).

I wanted to do the module though in part because I think being able to write screen plays is a very useful skill to have, in part because it will hopefully make it easier to craft things like radio plays, comics and other non novel and prose shaped objects. It feels very versatile and like something I could use a great deal.

It's just not my natural way of telling stories.

Despite that, I think I'm getting there - it's just the work load feels heavier this term than it did in the spring. My novel work has stalled (again) in favour of mastering the new technique and the 'finish by Christmas' dream is well and truly popped. I hope to get some more of it done at the Christmas break but we'll have to see. On the plus side the people I farmed out what I've already written have all pretty much given me good feedback, which makes me happy.

I got my proposal for my Final Project in yesterday, which is gratifying (and I hope they take it because otherwise I'm at a loss as to what to do). The idea for the piece is a book of short stories in the world of one of my unpublished stories, Sacrifices. What I want to do is tell a set of stories which meld myth, fairy tale and folklore with fantasy fiction, making stories which explore female archetypes in fantastic settings with a snifter of feminism on the side. The genesis of the project actually lies with Sam Stone, who read Sacrifices in the summer and suggested that I expand the world and add more stories to flesh out the other characters.

I've mentioned authors like Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Juliet E McKenna and Emma Newman as being inspirations and touchstones for what I want to do; hopefully getting a balance between the various elements. Weirdly, my undergraduate dissertation was a political pieces about representation of gender in science fiction, largely coming down on the side that generally SF tows the line by sidelining female characters into traditional roles. Nearly twenty years later, I'm doing another piece that again focuses on gender, its just that this time the political angle is nowhere to be seen (or perhaps is relegated to third position, as I don't believe it's possible to talk about anything without some sort of political angle creeping in... )

Beyond that, it's just more climbing up the mountain.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Gaming: A Sorta Manifesto

One of my distractions at the moment is gaming. Not actually doing it (I'm hoping to start an all female game of Night's Black Agents, which  I must confess I'm really looking forward to; but for my main group I'm still on a break), but just thinking about it.

This has taken a few different modes, first realising that I've been far too conciliatory on some levels. I've given ground on games I like and really want to play in the name of getting some sort of game which all the players can grasp, even to the extent of taking a 'high concept only' route at one point to ease the way. If I couldn't explain a game's concept in 25 words or fewer I simply didn't pitch it... not ideal when I really want games about urban magic and conspiracies not only to control the world but to bind its imagination in webs so tight that aberrant thoughts become near to impossible. This has been coupled with a black mood where I worry that going back to my gaming group means having to accept that playing games focused on fighting and really simple concepts is the only way I'm going to get to game, leaving me wondering what to do with regards to this. Running Night's Black Agents is going to be fun, but it's a stop gap, not a solution. Sooner or later I have to deal; either I need to change, to find a new gaming group or find a way to make what I want mainstream for my old group.

I flashback to something one of my players said about Yggdrasil, 'that will be different' and find myself asking 'how?' - wishing for something to change doesn't make it so, unfortunately, and the games I've played recently really make me feel like bashing stuff is the only game in town. Also, as I've commented in the past, I feel as if my taste in genres and what I want to
run is out of step with everyone else, which is creating a problem for me. I did find myself wondering about buying FFG's Deathwatch game just to run as a straight forward combat simulator, but even before I got it I was thinking that it wouldn't take, its not in my nature to run something like that - poisoned histories, grail quests and the Knights Templar filled my imagination. I'm still not sure, I might get it, but it seems unlikely.

Increasingly though, I'm trying to express what I do want in a game, to build a manifesto for my gaming (yeah I know, how '80s) and put things into context. I work best in the written form so that's why I'm trying to do this, and I figured I'd put it up here, with justifications for each part.

1) Talk to the players before the game starts to establish common ground and focus, be that fighting, intrigue, socialising, exploration or what have you. Partly this is here because there's no point letting someone design a detective if your games going to be all ass kicking and fights. Likewise there's no point letting someone build a fighter if most of your game will take the player characters to soirees and balls to learn secrets. As a GM I feel quite strongly (possibly as a result of previous GMs approving what seemed to turn out to be fifth wheel PCs, my recent Face in Shadowrun being one of them - without wanting to sound bitter, but when most of a session is fighting, being the guy whose main skill set lets him convince elf gangers they've won a tater tots promotion kind of feels like a stupid choice) that there needs to be a strong guide on what's needed, even for 'entry level' games like D&D and Shadowrun. The old 7th Sea game had a table for this kind of thing, dividing the game into a number of focus areas (combat, intrigue, exploration and romance were the main ones as far as I remember) and I'm wondering about bringing it back.

This would also allow for a discussion of genre - having played in 7th Sea and seen players neither take risks (okay that's partially because the mechanics were a bit wonky) nor operate according to the 'only the big villain gets killed, everyone else gets knocked out' trope and in a silver age supers game where two of the heroes were intent on being killers, I don't think it's possible to undersell how important this kind of discussion is. Most genres are so broad that they've become suggestions rather than prescriptions. A space opera game could be in line with Star Wars, Star Trek, Farscape, Firefly or Iain Banks' Culture novels (personally I'd like to play something akin to Charles Stross' Saturn's Children with the characters being robots in a post human universe). Other genres have similar issues with breadth which convinces me that they've almost become a lazy way of signposting intention.

The other side of this is, that with a few exceptions, I really don't think the GM should generate everything for a campaign; players have to take a turn, especially if we want to break away 'frustrated novelist' stuff but have games that aren't just dungeon crawling and beating up guys for having different colour skin or bad employment choices. White Wolf used to call this 'open campaign planning' and it's become more and more appealing as time's gone by. The problem here of course is that there's a strongly ingrained culture in gaming of a) the GM and players are opponents and b) the player's job is to turn up and play, and nothing else and this idea challenges that, even after twenty years of games trying erode it.

2) Get a number of 'facts' for each character, I think three or five would be best. These can be anything from 'likes cinnamon buns' to 'killed his father as a child to stop him beating his mother up', anything that lets the character come to life is fine. A huge history isn't necessary, one thing that's cool about Numenera are the tables to create connections to other characters and fill in background without it becoming overwhelming. In the same way that FATE's character gen gives just enough history without filling in every little piece: that's what you need for a book character, not an RPG one. For everything else 3 or 5 facts feel like the happy medium.

3) Keep it social. I don't really care about the context but I like it if the characters can sit down somewhere and socialise, that they have peers and connections who aren't all job related. Think about Elysium in the Vampire games or the Caern in Werewolf the Apocalypse, it's not just a place to get plots moving, but a
place where the player characters can be themselves without being on edge; that's important. The opposite, where the characters exist in a perfect bubble with nobody else in their social circle except for the other PCs and job related NPCs, feels false. I'll concede that in the past I've gone too far the other way, trying to build worlds in the background with no real expectation that the players try to engage (because real life doesn't work like that and I like immersion). Nowadays I try to fight the urge to overfill the setting with plots unless I'm serious about people following them.

4) Try to play around with adventure structures as much as possible, always starting at the beginning can get boring whereas in media res and using flashbacks feels more natural and interesting to break the game up. Nothing is more fun than variation.

As an addendum I'd also add limiting the number of subplots player characters can carry at any one time, a game of Legend of the Five Rings I ran ended up with one player dominating the game because his character was so busy poking his nose into things; eventually he was dominating the game so much that it felt like the rest of the players might as well not have bothered turning up and he was just stressing me out. So, I think I'm going to limit subplots to three per player and asking them to pick one they want to focus on rather than just trying to keep all the balls in the air.

5) I also want to get away as much as possible from the trope of 'group x are bad guys', where that means blurring into what feels like quasi racist or elitist roles. I know it's stupid, on one level we're talking about fiction and make believe so it doesn't matter what they are. On the other hand it leaves a bad taste in my
mouth unless there's a strong reason in game behind it - if there are Orcs for instance then it's fine if they were corrupted by an evil god or something; a Victorianesque idea of them being evil because they're savage and uncivilised is offensive though. I feel the same about corp security in cyberpunk games, why should they get the metaphorical red shirt simply because they have to work for a mega corporation?

Here I should explain, I'm happy to use cults and villainous groups of mean people in games, especially if they're full of people who have either made a free choice or been brainwashed into going along with the mean people's plan. If the bulk of the cult's members are willing participants, happy to support a plan to resurrect Akhenaten because it will make them fabulously rich and powerful? Hell yeah, bring your guns and explosives, administer a nitro glycerin enema and do star jumps for I care. They made their choice and went along with something evil.

Brainwashed dupes present another issue, but one that I hope would dealt with sensitively.

Pointing at a bunch of people who are green and barbarous (as is the case of Warhammer's Orcs) and saying 'evil' comes across a completely different level and as signed up bleeding heart liberal pinko scum, I'm uncomfortable with that.

6) Reward creativity, keep combat to quick fights that don't bog down the session and try to encourage the players to be creative in combat - too often it seems that it bogs down to 'I hit him' or 'I shoot him', which is dull, dull, dull. I really like Exalted's stunt system for that, it gives players a reason to push further and do some grandstanding with a set of mechanics to back them up. Added to this though is a desire to get conflicts resolved more peacefully, through negotiation rather than just by violence. I was really heartened when my friend Bert told me that his group had defeated an encounter with giants by talking to them rather than reaching for their swords. This is what I'd like in my games.

7) It's not what you fight, it's what you fight for: this credo, taken from the Mouseguard comic, underscores my last point, which relates to game structure in general. I've grown quite tired of the trope of characters being a group of plucky adventurers who wander the land taking jobs. It feels false (especially in a fantasy game where the ability to travel would likely be restricted, how many villeins took holidays or even went on pilgrimages?) and cuts down on the dramatic possibilities of a game quite a lot - most drama comes from social interaction and conflicting drives; you can't have that if you're constantly on the road and you're not likely to come back that way again. In addition to this, having something to fight for lets the characters aspire to something greater than just loot.

Oddly that seems to be all I can think of, making the manifesto conveniently short. I don't think any of the things I've put are unreasonable and to be honest I'm baffled as to why they aren't standard practice for  gamers, perhaps they are. I'm conscious that a lot of what I'm suggesting are more cinematic or novel like fixes for things and would take things away from the traditional shape of most games. I'm actually pretty happy about that.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013


I'm late to the party with this, mostly because I get my news second hand these days (I stopped paying attention when it became clear the game was over and we live in a elected dictatorship where the only things that change are the faces, not the policies). Putting my bitter, cynical shell aside for the moment (if I can, I mean it's really tasty); when I found out about this:, through Charles Stross' site I felt I should say something (honestly, I think we should).

It seem fairly typical of our Prime Minister that he would try to co-opt the centenary of the First World War for his own ends (and why are we celebrating the start, should we not mark the end instead?). It fits with so much of what he's done during his tenure of the position; from the bread and circuses of the Diamond Jubilee and the Royal Wedding to the historical stumble that put Britain in a supporting role during World War 2 during a visit to the USA, this is a man who favours a sideshow and has no grasp of history.

I wouldn't dispute that remembrance is important, but the idea of celebrating the war in any form is one I find bizarre, given the cost in human lives. In fact I'd say that to even use the word is disrespectful and the idea that the Great War was in someway linked to freedom and democracy ( one that is just damn insulting, unless its to say 'yeah thanks to this we got some' even if that was more a reaction to the Russian Revolution than the war itself. This is an event that was a watershed moment for the world, the beginning of the end of Europe's imperial dreams, and the rise of the USA into some sort of prominence. In many ways those four years were the most important in the entire 20th Century. Without them we would probably live in a world the resembled that of the Warlord of the Air by Michael Moorcock, abandoned by scientific development and lost to democracy. Without them most of Europe would be ruled by tin pot hereditary dictatorships and Britain would never have become a true democracy. It's absolutely right that we take a moment to reflect on that and on the lives lost in this most inane and horrific of wars, and why things have scarcely got better a century on.

On another level, for the British it was a crumbling of the stiff upper lip and the end of the Victorian certainties that had so defined their worlds. It was the loss of confidence that being British meant something; economically and politically it left the empire spent. The war's legacy left a long shadow in the form of shell shock and injured men. Red poppies replaced white feathers, the last hurrah of confidence - 'it will all be over by Christmas' - was a view espoused by a population that was out of step with technology; even the military didn't understand the new face of war (echoes of that resound even now). Field Marshal Haig tried to use cavalry on the fields of northern France: they were cut to ribbons by maxim guns. In this sense it feels, to me, like trotting out a huge celebration would not only be inappropriate but an attempt to resurrect something that's been dead a century. There's a lot of that about at the moment, a real sense of 'the rich man in his parlour, the poor man at his gate'. It sticks in my craw frankly, is this what our ancestors fought for?

Remembrance Day's meaning has changed for me over the past few years. I used to wear a red poppy but in recent years I've started to buy white ones instead. To me the red poppy has become a jingoistic symbol; something that glorifies the war rather than remembers the damage it wrought and the lives it shattered both in Britain and across the Commonwealth (not to mention in France, America, Germany, Austria... you get the idea). The photo of the Royal British Legion's Poppy Day in Manchester shows a girl in a tee shirt with 'future soldier' on it, which seems a far cry from the 'War to End All Wars' that I grew up with. I'm uncomfortable with the sentiment, it implies we've given up on the idea of not going to war, even though there's nobody to really threaten us (outside of terrorists and, frankly armies and wars seem to breed more not fewer of those), which in turn implies that like TV or video games, war has become another distraction, another way to keep the population quiet. That isn't anything new of course, arguably the USA has been doing it since World War 2 ended and its a trick that goes back to the Ancient World. Perhaps its just that a century is a long time and the people who fought in it are largely dead; its been repurposed for a new age: as a lodestone of national identity in a society where globalised capitalism is rapidly rendering such things meaningless.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Halloween Hijinks

Last night was a brilliant one, for a number of reasons.

Firstly it was my wedding anniversary yesterday, my wife and I have been married five years and I feel blessed that she sticks with me through everything. We exchanged gifts but spent most of the day asleep because we were both tired.

In the evening, we went out to a night of horror readings, organised by the marvellous Fringeworks/Darkside Press. We had readings from Theresa Derwin, Jasper Bark and many others. All the stories and readers were brilliant. It was great too to see some other folks, Catherine and Laurence from Crafty Miss Kitty were there for instance and its always great to see them.

RPGs: things I like

As mentioned a while ago I've stopped playing RPGs for the time being.

What I'm doing instead is reading and thinking about games and what I want to get out of them.

I've been particularly taken with FATE and some of its bolt ons (that's rude in the Isle of Man apparently, which means I'll be using it as often as possible). Specifically I like the game creation idea in the core rulebook, the idea that the players and GM decide the setting together is something I've been chasing for a long time. I love the idea of a game where everyone chips in details and ideas equally and you all develop it together.

In the light of this, Diaspora's cluster generation system seems particularly good and I've had some fun mucking around with generating worlds and their relationships. I like the fact that even though Diaspora is a hard SF game (for hard SF read, no gravity drives, no psionics, no real alien races and so on) the cluster generation system is clearly portable and could be used to make islands for an archipelago game or even towns in a weird west or fantasy setting, simply by changing some words. I love this; its quite elegant and clever. It allows everyone to pitch in (the idea is that everyone creates the setting, echoing the sentiment in the new core rulebook, the only difference is that there's some systemisation and slightly less spitballing).

The other thing I love about FATE addresses something one of the guys I play with has raised, that character
history is often neglected for the sake of having an effective game piece and he often feels he doesn't know who his character is. My fear here has always been that I'll be presented with an immense history that I then have to navigate my way around to get characters involved in the game. FATE encourages some sketching out of history but channels it into Aspects (statements that players can use in the game or that the GM can tag to compell them to do things). There's also a group building element here, there's no chance of 'you're in a pub and an old man approaches you with a treasure map' because the chareacdters should all have histories that mix, creating a party with shared history from the very beginning. It seems to offer the best of both worlds; effective character history with enough detail but not so much as to make the character unplayable!

Another game I've been enjoying reading and hope to have a go at is Numenera. Here the attraction is in the way that XP is handled. The focus of the game is exploration and the XP system goes out to reward that, along with rewarding the players for accepting set backs and difficulties. Whilst the former takes the form of being given points for finding cool stuff (or terrible stuff, or old stuff) the latter works on the idea of 'GM Intrusions', which sounds like something to do with the Manx bolt on. Actually what it means is that if the GM makes life difficult for a player - say someone who's sneaking through a house treads on a squeaky floorboard, or a soldier with sweaty hands loses their grip on their sword - the player gets a couple of XP, or can spend an XP to knock the complication back. The thing I really like is that if they accept the intrusion they have to share their reward with another player, theoretically encouraging a more communal style of play where people cooperate more. This is something I like, if only because frequently PvP is a pain the proverbial.

Essentially I think I'm pushing towards something more cooperative with the GM seen not as an enemy but as someone to work with and where the mechanics support more group play. Next up I'll be reading Gumshoe games I think.