GenCon Schedule

This is the first year I’ll be attending GenCon. For years, it was an event that seemed to happen a world away that I’d never have the means or the reason to actually attend – it was more about wishing and opining for “one day” to come so that some future version of me would be there.

Well, I guess the future is now, because in 19 days (at least according to the countdown timer on the website as I write this post) I’ll be there. So let’s go through my schedule, day by day.

Wednesday

The Diana Jones Awards – I’m going to this. I don’t know what it is or how this works, but apparently this not a black-tie sort of event.

Thursday

Okay, before I get into the schedule, I have to throw a flag on the play. I was NOT pleased with the seminar selection for Writing. I’m a little biased, sure, as seminars about writing are one of my sources of income, but I was really disappointed in both the segmentation of the process (one whole panel about plot, one whole panel on characters), as well as this weird assumption I’ve seen crop up lately that you’re either a total rookie when it comes to writing or you’re currently cranking out your thirtieth novel.

There does exist a middle of the road, and there is a better way to do things – which is why Thursday is going to be John’s Bootleg Seminar Day. Bootleg because it’s not an official thing you sign up for, and it’ll be very much like the informal seminars I give at DexCon, Dreamation and Metatopia (in other words, awesome). While I still have to sort out the details (like time and place), you can get in the loop on this by following me on Twitter, and sending me an email.

There’s also the GenCon Social. Admittedly, I haven’t really been paying attention when Jenn has been talking about this, but it sounds kinda like you put gamers and food in a room and then they hang out. Usually I just call that “work”. Or “what I do at conventions”. It’ll be cool either way.

Friday

[SEM1238034 Editing and Indie Games] I edit indie games. And any chance I can hang out with other editors, it’s nice.

[SEM1238035 12 for ’12: Writing A Dozen Novels In A Year] Because…c’mon, it’s Matt Forbeck. Also, I promised him I’d go.

[SEM1237839 The Inner-Demons And the Tribe: Dealing with Depression As A Gamer]  I am a gamer with depression. A panel like this sounds actually helpful, especially with the treatment I’m going through now.

[SEM1238038 Freelancing In The Game Industry] Because I freelance in the game industry. For other thoughts about freelancing, you should track down Brian Engard’s podcasts on Jennisodes and Dice Food Lodging. And then you should follow him on Twitter and tell him his voice may or may not sound annoying. You know, if you have nothing else to do. Or just want to make his Twitter follower number rise so his OCD kicks in. (I am a weird friend.)

Friday night is also when the ENnies are awarded. I’m going, because I voted for stuff, and because my way awesome friends are nominated.

Saturday

[SEM1238042 Doing Kickstarter Right] Because Kickstarter is a thing I use, something that my clients use and crowd-funding should be talked about often.

[SEM1234371 Investigative RPGs and the GUMSHOE System] This is basically my chance to hear Ken and Robin pick on Simon in person. Also, GUMSHOE is awesome, and I promised Ken earlier this month I’d be there.
* Also, I bought Beth Lewis a cupcake.

[SEM1238046 Getting the Most Out Of Working With Editors] Because I’m an editor, and people should come meet me so that they can see editors aren’t the boogeyman of publishing anything.

My apologies for not knowing when these awards things are happening – I’m a little too fussy about time and have elected to just let the people around me prod me about them. I have enough things in my head at the moment, so I’m trusting other people to get me to where I need to be, whenever I need to be there.

There’s a LOT of downtime in this schedule, and I plan on making frequent ventures out to whatever Halls and Game Areas there are. So if you’re coming to GenCon and want to say hello, please do so.

Enjoy your weekend.

Here’s What I Did This Weekend

Note – this post is going to be way personal, although I’m not going to mention any names of people or any details (they’re not sordid), so if you’re waiting for me to talk about writing, grab a cookie and wait a little longer.

As per the writer/artist cliche, I suffer from pretty intense depression. This really isn’t a secret if you know me, I’ve likely talked about it with you or you’ve been either present or aware that I have my good days and bad days. What the majority of people don’t know is that along with that depression comes a huge heap of anxiety that dives into full-on panic. 
And like all people who think they can handle their problems, I didn’t really do shit about it. I thought this was just my deal, and that by saying something about it, I was jeopardizing my relationships, my professional career and any “cool credit” I had accumulated to date. 
I realize now that I was totally 100% backwards on that idea — My silence and the shit I did because I was too afraid to get help cost me my relationships, a lot of career options and my “cool credit”. 
So I’ve been looking for professional help. I have a list of names and numbers and I was dutifully making calls, getting discouraged and having a harder and harder time understanding why I was doing it. There wasn’t a “prize” or “reward” I saw for doing this – no one was going to hand me a cupcake or make out with me or whatever….but I knew that I wanted the shit to stop. I wanted to break, like big huge compound fracture break, the cycle of shitty attitude and shittier behaviors and get better. Sure it cost me relationships and friendships and opportunities and burnt quite a few dreams to the ground, but on the bigger scale — I could either live for those dreams, or I could do something and get better, so that maybe later (some indeterminate later) I could revisit those dreams and goals and have relationships where I wasn’t being a bag of shit. 
I did finally get through to a professional, and I explained my situation. She said, “Go meet my associate at my local hospital, he can help you.”
I went, thinking I’d name-drop this guy and get whisked off to some cushy office on a double-digit floor and I’d start some process of talking and getting help. 
That didn’t happen.
I name-dropped that guy, and like I said a Manchurian Candidate code-word, I was checked into the hospital, and taken into the back for “evaluation”.
This is where One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest became my dominating panic-thought. 
Granted, I had REALLY amazing hospital people around me, who were SUPER supportive and very aware I was TOTALLY freaking out, as they drew blood, inventoried my pockets and gave me some emerald scrubs in place of clothes. (Side note – I look pretty good in emerald) 
This was all around 10 in the morning Friday. Maybe 10:30, I’m not really sure. There are no clocks “in the back”. 
I’m someone who really enjoys a sense of contentment from knowing what time it is. I can’t measure time for shit, (I also can’t judge distances) but I feel way less panicky and jumpy when I know how long I’ve been in a room. 
I was alone, and my panic instincts are pretty intense. I drowned a little in absolute fear (that I’d never get out of a hospital ever again), but eventually, people and Ativan pulled me out. 
The end results? Intense therapy starting this week. Anxiety meds. Pills for high blood pressure (apparently 154/122 isn’t a good state for your heart to be in for hours on end). 
I went in at around 10. And was home by 6:45. A whole day that is a mixture of trauma and blurry not-quite-House phrases. 
What are my goals? To get better. To be a better person. To not hurt all the damned time. 
If my admission here causes you to unfollow me, unfriend me, block me on social media, ignore this blog, send me hate mail, or think that a guy saying he’s getting help for his problems is a homosexual or a loser, then go forth into the world, far away from me — that’s not the kind of attitude I want around me sick, healthy or otherwise. 
I can’t promise anyone miracle cures or instantaneous fixes. I also won’t blow smoke up your asses. This is what I’m doing, I might end up talking about some parts of it periodically (believe me, the experiences of Friday WILL end up in something I write), and I just want you to know that this is going on…
transparency, it’s a thing I’m working on. 
We’ll talk soon.

Breaking FATE – Walter White

I was recently challenged to design Breaking Bad’s characters via Fate, Cortex-Plus and/or Gumshoe. What follows under the “Breaking FATE” tag are my efforts to do so.

Here is Walter White, done in Fate:

Walter White
High Concept: Family Man turned Emperor
Trouble: A Man’s Pride

Aspects:
I will support my family
I’m the one who knocks
I will get what I want, one way or another
Let nothing stand in my way
Pride In One’s Work
Living a double life

Skills
Alertness Fair (+2)
Athletics Average (+1)
Contacts Fair (+2)
Conviction Superb (+5)
Science Great (+4)
Scholarship Great (+4)
Intimidation Good (+3)
Guns Average (+1)
Resources Good (+3)
Rapport Fair (+2)
Fists Average (+1)

Stunts
Menacing
The Blue Meth (either notoriety or actual science)
Oh Shit! Gains +2 to Alertness when rolling against surprise

Stress
4’s across the Board



Admittedly, I’m not happy with this, and it’s by NO MEANS FINAL, I’m just putting my ideas out there.


Granted too, I bent the rules a little. I listed only the skills I could document (so it’s not a full-pyramid), and they’re only the skills that come up in play.


And I suck at Stunts. Although I’m trying to get better.

Storytelling!

You could also call this article “Game Mastering” or “Game Running” or “How To Build A Better Novel” or “How To Take An Idea Out Of Your Head And Put It Into A Form People Will Enjoy”

On Monday, I talked about what I learned from running a tournament game over the weekend at DexCon. The experience left such a clear impression in my mind, and really affected me that I’m going to continue talking about it today.

But whereas on Monday I was praising the people I worked with and the specific stories told, I didn’t really
talk at all about HOW those things came into being. I don’t mean “We exchanged emails” I mean “how did I take the notes I got (which were little paragraphs of or 3 sentences) and turn them into 7 ten-page relatively complete and interlocking experiences?

To do this, we have to start at the top.

Note – There’s going to be a lot “I” here. This isn’t because I’m being conceited or a prick, it’s just because I can’t speak for how you (whoever you are) develops a story. I’m not saying your method is crap, I’m saying that it’s possible our two methods aren’t the same. So here’s my whole thought process, laid out. 

I. What’s the Point?

Whether it’s a book or a game or set of scenarios for a game, I need to figure out what the end-goal is supposed to be. For the tournament, this was pretty clear – take 30 characters, weed them down to a smaller group, and ideally get a victor, who would “win” by not only surviving but also solving the Conspiracy (the game has a strong investigatory element) that the villains had in place. 

I had notes on what the Conspiracy was, and by notes I mean “Ken wrote a sentence”. And I stared at it, until I figured out that it was a formula: 


[Badguys] want [Ideal Situation] to happen. They’re going to do/use [Event(s)] to bring it about.

Once I saw what the antagonists were going to do, it was easy to figure out what the protagonists do, which is also a formula:

[Goodguys] want to stop [Badguys] by preventing/fixing [Events] from going according to plan.

Armed now with a point, I could move to the next step, finding who the badguys were.

II. The Badguys

I knew what they were going to do, so I had to figure out what sort of person/creature/entity/being would do
those things. I put myself in the baddie’s place –

Okay, I want X to happen. What does that say about me?

This differential diagnosis brought me a few tropes (I was evil, I put myself before others, I had no
compunctions about killing the innocent to forward my goal) but also a few deeper thoughts (I need to do this to survive, I must sate my needs, I’m at best a beast and a junkie masquerading as something else). 

Once I had the psychology in place (not finalized, but I was at least in the ballpark), I went to the Events.

III. The Events

These are the scenarios that the players had to navigate and survive. I knew I needed 7 total (6 preliminary and 1 final), and I knew there was an over-arching plot that tied them together, so I divided them into groups.

In that way, these weren’t unlike chapters in a novel, something else I’m really used to creating.

I knew that each individual Event had to have a setup, a development, a climax and a resolution. And I knew that for 6 of the Events, the resolution would be “survivors advance to the next round”. I worked backwards to say that the climax had to be a fight, because you need something to happen in order to say you survived, which left me the setup and development.

Setup
I had notes about what the initial setups should be. The plot was divided into chunks so that each Event would in theory give you puzzle pieces, and you’d in theory reach the end of the final event with enough pieces to make a rough sketch of the overall picture. 

Each event started with getting the protagonists (the players) involved in a single story — they had to go somewhere and do something, that by itself could have just been a whole book/event unto itself. I didn’t want 
them to yet realize what they did in the events was part of a larger puzzle until they were already too far in to back out. And the best way to get people to invest in a hurry is to push emotional buttons, which means 
create situations where they respond maybe a little fast or hasty, learn the hard way that they can’t do that a
second time, then make them cautious about each subsequent time.

It’s like touching a hot stove – you only have to do it once to learn to be careful while cooking.

Each setup was a self-contained adventure that just happened to fit a larger picture because elements of that
adventure that may seem out of place locally, fit globally.

Development
So on paper, I had 6 elements that if summarized, laid out the overall plot. Like this:


THE BIG PLOT IS XYZ
  * Event 1 introduces a character involved in XYZ
  * Event 2 tells how big XYZ can be
  * Event 3 introduces just how far the badguys are willing to go to make XYZ happen
  * Event 4 introduces how XYZ is getting supported without realizing it
  * Event 5 introduces what the future could turn out to be, if XYZ goes unchecked
  * Event 6 explores how far XYZ is from completing Stage 1

Event 7 (the finale) will bring the players face to face with the badguys and start XYZ into motion unless the
players stop it by any means necessary.

Now, there’s an assumption made here: That XYZ will go off without a hitch if no one does anything about it. I’m not the biggest fan of that, because it makes the protagonists either a) too critical, pressuring them or b) too unimportant because the plot is greater than they are. I skipped that whole assumption by making the players’ actions (the protagonists) critical to the execution of XYZ – no matter what they did, they’d be helping XYZ happen, until they figured out what was wrong, and then worked to stop it. 

I like stories that create character change. I like watching players see that their previously-thought-of-as-harmless action was actually one of a series of things that put this whole ball into motion. Not because I want them to be afraid to do anything in the future, but because I want them to understand that actions have consequences, and they don’t always know what the results will be. 


The downside with the above list of six is that they’re dependent on each other. Sure you can omit Event 5 and XYZ is still a threat, but you can’t really dismiss Event 1 or 4. I wrote it like that on the assumption that 
people would be fighting tooth and nail for the chance to win the prize, and they’d not have other conflicts,
second thoughts or obligations.


The reality was that we had around 2 dozen players, which means we didn’t have enough protagonists to run all 6 events. So, which events do we omit? Which Events can go so that the plot still makes sense and allows the players a chance to win the prize?

We ended up running Event 1, Event 2 and Event 3, patching holes in plots and taking elements from 4, 5 and 6 to make them fatter and juicier with details. My great regret is that 4 5 and 6 weren’t run, because they were, in my opinion, my better writing (I hit my stride and my confidence). Hopefully, I’ll have a chance in the near future to put together the whole story arc for players. 

But how did each Event get built?

IV. Event/Scenario Building

I talked above about how these scenarios are chapters of a bigger book, but maybe a better description is that they’re short stories within an anthology. 

Each Scenario has its own components:
      * The players get a mission
      * The mission starts off okay, but takes a turn for the worse
      * The players discover this mission is part of a bigger picture (they get clues to XYZ!)
      * The players have to stop the immediate threat

Key here are the clues, obviously. And to create clues, you have to look at the XYZ plot and figure out what
components make it happen. Paperwork, notes, maps, phone numbers, all the cogs of the machine. And then you scatter those cogs throughout the Scenarios. But you don’t do it blindly, there needs to be a 
reasonable connection as to why badguy #6 has a particular clue in her jacket pocket.

I found it helpful to make a huge table of clues and who had them and why. Most often the why was “because they can drive the truck” or “Because they handle the money”, but assigning clues to characters with a reason made the clues more important, both for the sake of XYZ and for me writing the scenes and beats where the clues could be found — no one wants to just walk into a room and see the smoking gun on the table, it’s unfair to everyone. 

With the clues in place, I had to go back to my initial assignment. Ideally there would be 30 people competing in this tournament, and we couldn’t have 30 people around 1 table for a finale. I had to thin the herd.

V. Characters & Villains (and balancing them)

Here’s where I raise my hand and say I screwed this up. It was fixable, and we took care of it when the problem arose, BUT I should have done a better job. I didn’t want there to be any problems, and with that attitude and pressure, of course there were some. Even though numerous people have told me to get over it, I’m still kicking myself. 

With the plot divided over 6 slices, it was time to figure out who was going to participate. I made some assumptions that a lot of people hadn’t played this game to the extent I have, so they likely are going to need 
a nice access route to the mechanics and the game. I also needed to divide 30 people into teams so that one team could handle an event. 

I could have made generic teams. I even had notes saying that in each scenario the players were one team or
another. But that…didn’t feel very big and exciting and “Signature Event” the way this tournament was getting
promoted. So the characters had to be special. And players needed to feel a connection to the story and their roles in it. 

So I made versions of famous movie and tv characters. The MI6 team were all James Bond actors. The IMF team was a combination of the movies and TV show. The Mossad team were all famous Jewish feminists. The point was, players would get (hopefully) a character they knew something about, and that would help bridge the gap between “I don’t know what I’m doing” to “I hope I’m doing this right”.

They even got little backstories. A paragraph or three describing how the felt or who on their team they felt
the meshed with. My hope was that for some people, this gave some ideas on the character, if they were
unfamiliar.

And then I went to give them stats, and blew it.


When I build characters, they’re at a certain level, usually a low one, because these characters are going to 
exist and persist for a long time and they’ll get better over the course of many adventures. Also, they’re not
facing super-terrible horrors right from the jump, so low-powering them isn’t a bad thing.

It’s a great strategy when you’ve got time on your side. It’s a terrible strategy for a tournament where you
have only so many sessions and hours to accomplish a lot in. But it’s fixable. One of the nice things about having the game’s creator on hand is that he can knock out some mechanics in his head and we can on-the-fly make changes that will repair things. 

Reparations, though, are only needed when you have really big villains. And I did. I spent time building
villains, I delighted in figuring out which creature was where….all with the goal of “What will kill players
the coolest (and if necessary, fastest)”.

And pre-tournament, everything was great. And then the players showed up.

VI. The Players

Introducing the human element (be they players or readers) into any story is a risk. They might not like the
plot, they might not follow the story through to its conclusion. They might tell their friends the story blows. In a game, they may see the plot, and then make a hard left turn into some strange and foreign story where 
quick-thinking and iron nerves make it all seamless (when really all you want to do is put your head against the table and cry). 

What do I mean, you ask?

Well let’s suppose your characters are on a mission to rescue hostages on a boat. And in the course of that
rescue operation, they engage in a pretty nasty fight in the bowels of the ship. And their resolution to the
fight is to blow a hole in the side of the ship…just below the waterline, so that the hostages they’re meant
to save and the clues they’re supposed to find all go to Davy Jones’ Locker.

Or let’s suppose the character is tasked with protecting a vital non-player-character. Let’s further say that
the player elects to protect that non-player-character by wooing her, and then, in order to protect her, finds
it necessary to knock her out, tie her up and eventually throw her off a balcony into a swimming pool. You know, for her protection. 

Or let’s say the whole plot is moving along, and the players reach what are likely the last ten minutes of play
and they…well, they collectively decide to leave. I don’t mean the players walk out of the room, I mean the 
characters elect to steal an NPC’s car and drive away from the story but not before sealing hundreds of 
innocents into a building with monsters.

When I’m writing fiction, or whenever there’s a one-way conversation going on (I write it, time passes, someone reads it), the worst case scenario is that people dislike what I’ve written, and they move on to other things. 


When that same conversation is two-way or interactive, the worst case scenario is an ever escalating mess of
responses made hastily, rather than logically. Like this:

Example
——–
GM: The creature appears out of the shadows. It’s bad.
Player: I run away.
GM: (who didn’t plan for this) Um…uhh…there’s a second monster by the door.
Player: Then I jump out the window.
GM: (in whose mind the story is falling out the window too): You’re on the sixth floor.
Player: I have a hang glider.

The end result? The player is frustrated, the GM is frustrated and the story dies on the vine.

I’m not upset that people won the tournament, they were supposed to win. People had a great time and I loved running the session I did. Am I hurt that the whole storyline wasn’t told? Yes. Is that really a problem? No. 

VII. What I Learned

The biggest takeway here is that while you must have an end-goal, the point of interactive storytelling is to
make the journey to that goal just as big (or bigger) then the end-result. Yes, the players were supposed to win the tournament, that was the point, but HOW they got there was not only a condition of winning but also the reason why they spent hours of a Saturday afternoon in a cold boardroom. 

Follow that closely with the idea that the best element of story is emotion and the best element of interactive
storytelling is flexibility. To make players care about what they do, (and not make this just an exercise to win
a cash-prize) they have to care, even in some imaginative way that what they say these creations are doing has a consequence that affects them. And likewise, when those characters undertake plans that are way off-book, the GM has to be flexible in either going with the flow (vamping and pulling the story slowly back to plot or absolutely chucking the story and working extemporaneously) or running the risk of admitting defeat and terminating whatever good experience the collective group is having. 

Last, I learned a valuable lesson in confidence. I was prepared, I may have made some mistakes, but rather than leap off building to my doom, or spend hours convinced that everyone hated me, I rolled with it. Okay yes, I got a couple glares, eye rolls and sighs. Yes, we had to figure something out on the fly. Was it the end of the world? Nope. Was I not repeatedly lauded and praised for all the hard work? Yes. And that makes me feel so much better about so many of the things I’m doing, both in and out of gaming. 

A good time was had by all, and I am so thankful and grateful for the opportunity to be a part of it. In the 
event that this tournament becomes a regular thing (which it can be, if you make your voices heard), I’m all
over it. 

Have a great day. Later this week, I’ll talk about more stuff gaming taught me.

What I Learned This Week At DexCon

This week was DexCon, the annual summer gaming convention that happens between Origins and GenCon (the two other big summer conventions). And if you’ve been anywhere near me lately, you likely got sucked into the tornado that was John-prepping-for-a-convention.

This year I was assisting in the running of a Signature Event, a tournament of Night’s Black Agents where the winning team scored a $1,000 for surviving and discovering the conspiracy unfolding around them. I am forever grateful to the tremendous assistance and support of Ken Hite, the game’s creator as well as Bill White, the third GM for their enthusiasm and patience with me — I have no doubt I was an over-compensating buzz of frantic anxiety, and they were masterful in keeping me on track and keeping everything moving forward.

Granted, my job seemed easy – I had to create the 30 characters for participants to use, as well as develop adventures designed to both give the players clues as well as winnow down the 30 players to a final round. We were successful, and I felt a tremendous sense of relief and adrenal relaxation (I suddenly lost an invisible 60 pounds of “what if this sucks?” I had been carrying). And the whole event, which mauled my Saturday, taught me A LOT.

Combine that with likely one of my top-four workshops (which is no longer at midnight, and comes with coffee for the morning crowd) and I am deeply happy man. That also taught me a lot.

I list those things now. When I talk about “it” (whatever “it” is) just replace that word with your book/game/project/thing you’re doing).

1. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it has to be the best you can do, and you have to give a shit about it. When I said yes to the opportunity to co-run a tournament, and once I got past the excitement of “I’m going to play one of my all-time favorite games with one of my favorite people who happens to be the guy who wrote the game!” and I saw the amount of work I had to do, it was tough not to get immediately paralyzed.

Create 30 characters that were pitch-perfect, interesting and accessible to players as well as seven scenarios that would weed through players and characters all within a 6-or-so-hour block? Gulp. I have experience making characters, I’ve even thought at times I was good at it, because I’m really just filling out an excel sheet, but this….this is serious! I can’t just have “my” kind of characters, I need to have Grade-A characters (kudos if you just caught the implication that I doubt myself sometimes).

And I just can’t have decent or average plots, I have to have plots good enough for the guy who wrote the game will respect and enjoy and not scowl at me all the way through. I can’t suck at this. (Cue anxiety, nervous stomach and panic sweats)

So, I sat down, talked myself down off that ledge and got to work.

a) I know how to do this.
b) I do this for my friends all the time.
c) I’m not working in a vacuum, I have people (like the game’s creator, duh) who can help me
d) and if it all goes pear-shaped, who cares, it’s a game, not nuclear disarmament talks with the Iranians)

And I did it. It was time-consuming, and it was essentially its own clinic in game design, story development and how-John-deals-with-the-spotlight, but I did it. Likely, when I tell you that I had also dropped about $90 at Staples to get pencils, erasers and folders, you’ll tell me that I overdid it, but the fact remained that I put all these things together. I don’t say that so that people say “Oh wow that’s amazing.” I say that so that I get it in my own damn head that I took on a big project and kicked its ass.

Was it perfect? Nope. Characters were under-powered, plots had holes, and my printer is low on toner, but all those things are fixable, despite my frustration and guilt that I didn’t do a perfect job, what I got was teased, not yelled at for the errors. And the errors got fixed, and a good time was had by all.

2. There are few things as nerve wracking as watching someone else go through your work with an audience, especially when they’re the developer of the game upon which your work is based. I’m used to people critiquing my writing. I go to meetings, I share my work with a lot of people, and they give me feedback (usually it’s “keep writing this!” and “stop thinking that you’re not good at it!” etc etc), so I have no problem sharing my work when my work is prose – someone reads it, they make comments, I’m used to that.

But it is wholly a different beast when what you’ve written is something interactive. When you watch someone at the top of the field take your work and make it come alive for an audience in a way you didn’t realize possible. It wasn’t just roll a few dice and say something, it was a moving, near-theater experience. It was as gaming should be – a dive into deep waters of imagination and story-telling where everyone is equally invested and equally enraptured by the tale and their contributions to it.

So I’m sitting there in the back of the room, watching Ken lead the final table through the plot. I know where the monsters are. I know where the red flags are. But what Ken did was transform them from simple encounters and bullet-points on page 4 into a story, and he painted (I mean like Van Gogh) a picture of an adventure and enemies and tension and excitement that I had some inkling of on the page…but Ken filled in the dots in a way that I don’t think anyone else could. He made my words not suck. He made them awesome.

That is scary though. While the other people in the room are listening to the players gasp and laugh and cheer and panic and play, I’m listening to the plot, I’m waiting for “Okay, does this monster kill them?” and “What about the clue?” That tension goes far beyond I-hope-there’s-a-winner and turns into oh-god-I-hope-this-doesn’t-suck-for-people. But…we made it. Hooray!

3. The biggest interference in a plot are the characters. The plot for the tournament, I felt, was one of the cleanest and jaw-dropping-est I-can’t-believe-that’s-a-thing plots I’ve ever worked on. It was so not a “go to Place A, retrieve item B, fight enemy C” affairs, but it rather intricately wove about 2 dozen clues together so that people could follow along.

Of course that somewhat assumes they will follow along. When one character takes the lady he’s supposed to protect and seduces her, then knocks her unconscious and throws her out a window into a pool (so the badguys can’t get her), that’s both one hell of a mixed message as well as something I wouldn’t think to do.

Likewise when characters are marshaling their forces and say “We need a flamethrower”, that’s not really something you can plan for. And no, you cannot plan for everything. The characters will surprise you when you leave them open-ended and provide fertilizer for the seed beds of imagination. (No, this isn’t the time to get into that discussion about whether you or not you “let the characters dictate the story as you write it”, this isn’t the place for that.)

I’m not saying that people are going to sabotage the plot, but you just have to roll with the punches when characters decide to make a hard-left out of the story and take it in a new direction. Granted this weekend we had neither time nor energy to vamp for 3 hours to get them back on track, so there was a huge margin of flexing, but as the developer of content, much like Moff Tarkin, you can’t hold too tightly to your plans, else things slip through your fingers. And I guess your British accent will come and go. Or something.

4. You need to take care of yourself. So I worked on this tournament and then decided that a six-hour marathon game wasn’t enough, that I would pull myself to my feet and play in another game that went from midnight until about 2am or so. Because that’s the healthiest response I could make, right? So by the time I fell asleep it was around 3:30 and I had to be up at 8:30 and ready to give a workshop at 10.

Also, if you’re scoring along at home, I am not 22 with a super metabolism and incredibly springy immune system. Oh, and I’ve fractured my ankle recently, depending on which medical authority you talk to (sprain, fracture, break, microfracture, these terms are but commas in medical sentences), so I’m gimping along on one leg and doing my best to pop Advil here and there and rest whenever possible. So what’s more restful than gaming for 12 hours straight?

On Sunday I had a GREAT, SUPER AMAZING WORKSHOP with a fantastic and detailed discussion of writing – covering discipline and habits and goal-setting and related ideas. I also answered a ton of questions (there were some wonderful questions this time), but I was so tired, I wanted to be more enthusiastic and answer more questions and get more into how to individually help people….but I just ran out of gas. I was tired and worn down and needed to rest.

It should be mentioned that this whole weekend it was hot. Like crazy living-in-a-furnace hot. Like 89 degrees at 2am hot. Hydration was the order of the day, and when I was hydrated, I felt great, I was awake and my foot didn’t hurt. When I was way behind in my waterload, I was sluggish, tired and a little babbling.

Those times when I stretched out in a chair, put my leg up and drank water? Incredibly restorative. I didn’t feel like I needed to be go-go-go all the time, I was better for not pressuring myself to do more.

So, summary time:

Take good care of yourself, and it makes stressful high-energy times worth it.
You’re going to end up stressing yourself out trying to be perfect, you’ll be much better off trusting yourself to do the best job possible.
More than you realize, there are very likely a lot more people who support you and actually like you, rather than who just tolerate your presence.

Happy writing. Later this week, I’ll do a post about how my writing has changed because of this experience.

Some Kickstarters You Should Support

For those that don’t know, Kickstarter is a crowd-funding website that allows people to make financial contributions to projects they want to see become real. And that could be inventions, television shows, books, games, movies, fashion….pretty much anything.

I list today a few Kickstarters I think you should take a look at, and support. Now, I know the tiers say specific value amounts, but once you click to donate, YOU CAN NAME YOUR OWN AMOUNT. So yes, even $1 helps.

Disclosure – I helped with these Kickstarters.

Guide To Village By The Sea by Lillian Cohen-Moore (@lilyorit on Twitter) For those that don’t know her, you should. She’s a wonderfully talented editor, a marvelous person and very nice. She even interviewed me once.

Her project is a sourcebook (an informational resource) that you can use in your gaming, your fiction and your daily life, and you can find content in that will make an impression, because the Village By The Sea is an evil and scary place. So if you like horror, you like being unsettled and you want to make this project into something tangible, donate!

Project Ninja Panda Taco by Jenn of The Jennisodes (@jennisodes on Twitter). If you’ve ever wanted to take over the world, this is the game for you. Be a nefarious Mastermind. Be a helpful Minion. Conquer Earth. Have fun doing it.

Jenn and I know each other. We game together. We’re friends. She’s interviewed me. I’ve played this game, and it is better than a lot of the games I have on my shelf (I’m looking at you defunct publishers who don’t support their back catalog). I edited this game, and can tell you that it really is a lot of fun both to just read through and play. (It’s one of a handful of games: Ticket to Ride, Gloom, Forbidden Island come to mind) where I learned the whole game’s mechanics in about 3 minutes (however long it takes to re-heat food) and have not tired of the nuance or play.

BONUS Kickstarter! Race to Adventure by Evil Hat Productions(@evilhatofficial on Twitter) If you love pulp then this board game is for you. Based on the Spirit of the Century game (a game very near and dear to me), this board game allows you to be pulp-hero and travel the world in search of treasure. Also, it’s way more fun than a board game should be. I’m serious, it’s obnoxious fun.

I mention this because one of the Unlockables (I love the way Evil Hat runs Kickstarters) is a Dinocalypse Expansion Pack….based on Dinocalypse Now, which you may remember is the book (the first of a series) that I edited. I really want to see this expansion happen.

DexCon happens later this week, and I’ve got two events on the docket:

1. The $1,000 Nights Black Agents Tournament — Saturday afternoon, Ken Hite (he wrote the game Nights Black Agents) and I will put 30 superspies (including Sydney Bristow, Jack Bauer, Sean Connery, Ethan Hunt and someone named ‘Codename Mario’) through a gauntlet of challenges and scenarios as they attempt to confront a Conspiracy of supernatural horror and world-in-danger-ness.

2. The Writing Workshop At DexCon — This panel is Sunday morning at 10am (NOT AT MIDNIGHT!! YAY!!) and I’ll be speaking for about 2 hours on: “The -ations: Getting Your Project Off The Ground” as well as answering your questions about writing, editing and developing novels, games, and anything with words.

Aside from that, I’ll be around all Convention (at Ken’s panel Friday Morning, all over the Con all weekend, holding a discussion-breakfast Sunday morning pre-writing workshop (details will be on Twitter), so if you’re in the area, come say hello!

What I Learned While In Anaheim

This post was scheduled to go up last Wednesday. Sorry it didn’t.

Yesterday at this time I was anxiously packing what felt like too many clothes and too many books into a suitcase too many cubic inches too small and hoping I wouldn’t say the wrong the thing the wrong way so that the whole universe didn’t collapse around me like a thick, evil scarf.

I am a good flyer, but I am not a good travel-preparation-er. Hours before a flight or a hotel check-out time, I am racked with irrational fears that I have or am about to forget something, throw the wrong paper out or that I’ll never find whatever bus, cab, monorail, ferry or rickshaw to my flight and that in the event I make it to the airport, the plane will have taken off without me. It makes traveling with me not terribly fun, and I am forever grateful to those people who do travel with me who have been nice enough to hold my hand, encourage me to chew some gum and remind me that there are plenty of things to read or watch and that the flight, no matter how long, will be over before I know it (no, they don’t mean it in the oh-my-god-Shatner-was-right-there-was-something-on-the-wing way).

But prior to that I was in beautiful Anaheim, home of Disney and palm trees and constant 80-degree weather, attending as the +1 of an awesome rock star librarian to the Annual Librarian Association conference. And while a lot of the specifics of the conference weren’t aimed at me, I did learn some things.

I list them here now:

1. “Print” media isn’t dead, it’s just not being used the way it used to be. I walked through rows of a convention center where people just GAVE away books. In stacks the height of an office chair. And depending on the time of day or day of the week, there were different stacks, requiring multiple trips to carpeted booths and carting back a heap of reading material.

Now compare this to the often-heard statement that “Print is dead”, because some sort of e-monster wrecked it (we’ll talk about that next), and you realize that the long-trusted, long-valued “book in your hand” idea is as dated as a phonograph, Hammer pants and pet rocks. There’s nothing wrong with getting your story printed as a book, it’s a great thing, but it’s no longer the peak of the mountain. It’s just one way to get your material out to readers. Holding on too hard to that idea that it “matters” makes you look antiquated, sluggish and behind the curve. Just like you have multiple means and routes for you to go from your house to your grocery store, there are multiple ways to get your story out to an audience. (When a hardcover book is handed out the way I’d give you a tissue if you asked for one, it loses some of that “books are special” appeal).

2. Technology is a tool, not proof of your failure, your age or inadequacy. I saw three camps of people:
a) People who were using and supportive of technology
b) People who resented/hated/lamented technology because they wouldn’t use it /didn’t like that it was more popular than what they were used to / couldn’t believe technology was making the old way they did things obsolete
c) People who thought they were too cool for technology, the conference and each other…that they were there basically to bitch about everything be so “over” and then drink in lonely boring groups with nothing to talk about. You may know these people as “hipsters”.

I fall into camp 1. And somehow always ended up in elevators with camp 2. And read the tweets of camp 3.  I guess this is sort of what audiophiles went through when CDs came out – the source material they loved so much changed, thanks to new technology, and a lot of people hoped/wished/prayed it was a fad (yes I actually heard some people saying that e-books are a fad). And it led me to wonder if there were cave people who thought fire was a fad. Or if there were Greeks who thought democracy was a fad.

We’ve all falling victims to fads. I have a Sparq drive. I have tried a lot of instant messenger clients. Fads come and go, and while I can appreciate not wanting to get left holding the bag on material you’ve purchased but can’t use, something has to be said for the wave of technology advancing.

Things are getting better, all the time, or so the song tells me. It’s not happening maliciously, or to spite you, I mean really, the world isn’t adopting digital storage because you’ve been at the job for forty years…you’re just…not that all-powerful.

3. A lot of people who work in a service-industry suck at talking to people. Alright, disclosure time: There are times when I suck at talking to people. Anxiety, moodiness, boredom, they all gang up and wreck my ability to put words into pretty sentences. (And no, I don’t want to argue that it’s a choice, because that’s not the point here). But I can, with enough will, get past it – and quite a few people have heard and seen me do it.One good deep breath and then I’m off and talking to people. It might not be the prettiest package of blah-blah-blah, but it gets the job done.

My point is: If you’re working a job that requires you to talk about what you do, for the purpose of having people use your service, you’re probably going to want to talk to them about your service. And when you stare blankly at someone (I call it goldfish-eyes), because you’ve realized that you’re supposed to be talking, but you aren’t, well, you look unprepared. It’s one thing not to expect anyone to listen to you speak, it’s another thing entirely when you’re job IS speaking.

They could have looked at notecards, or their hands or a co-worker. But just staring blankly makes me walk away. I don’t know if that happens for other people, but I’d rather go hang out with people who love to talk, because that makes my own anxiety about talking go away.

So that’s what I learned on this trip. I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

We’ll talk soon.