The Great Metatopia 2016 Recap Post

(originally this went up on Facebook, but it got long and I thought it deserved wider distribution)

Metatopia is the single greatest convention I attend every year. Period. There is no better professional setting I’m aware of, and this is absolutely the best place for designers new and old to congregate and flourish. That is 1000% due to the tireless work of the Double Exposure staff, and even with everyone heaping deserved praise at them, it’s not enough. This convention is the place to go if you want to create games or learn about the business of telling stories and engaging with people.

If there is a downside to convention culture, it’s that a lot of it orbits bars and a drinking culture. For the majority of people, this isn’t a problem – you have a drink or two, you laugh with your friends, you gossip and chatter, then haul off to bed. But for those of us working sober, for those of us who don’t have as easy a time in that atmosphere, the fact that each night (or frankly any time of day with downtime) brings everyone to a central alcohol dispensing locale is a challenge. The call to have a drink after a tough conversation or a shaky panel is a siren’s song, and I am so proud not only of myself, but my recently sober friends for working their programs and getting through. Good job us.

This year was honestly a departure from my usual routine of panel after panel, because this year I added co-panelists when I had the opportunity. Here’s why that’s flat-out not what I normally do – I love to hear myself talk, and I worry that sharing the stage is going to prove to people just how negligible my contributions to any discussion are.

But there I was, having conversations about everything from narrative structure to marketing strategies to the Oxford comma with other people at the table. And it didn’t suck. The panels weren’t all dumpster fires and CGI-less explosions. Sure, I had a few moments of “What the holy monkeyshit am I doing here?” but those were fleeting, and I was able to slip past those and get back to the task of informing people about things while making pop culture references and garnering laughs.

While it didn’t suck, it wasn’t easy, and I suppose that’s lesson #1 I learned – other people in your sandbox doesn’t totally prove that you shouldn’t be in the sandbox in the first place. I am supremely worried that because of other people my visibility got diluted, but if it is, then that’s due to me being all up in my head and forgetting to promote myself, it is not the fault of there being a second person on the stage with me.

That said, those other people were amazing. Like staggeringly smart, and I think our conversations and concept coverage was delivered better because there was a breadth of angles to address. From therapists to podcasters to legal editors to actors to people who tell stories about pole-dancing merfolk sex workers, they’re not stupid, and I won’t stand for anyone disparaging any of them just because you may have heard of me but not them.

There are few personal things to talk about in some detail for the remainder of this post. So yes, there’s gonna be a tonal shift, but I urge you to stick with me on this ride, please. Here we go.

I didn’t drink. I didn’t go get high. Holy sweet things was I ever tempted, but I picked up the phone and got the help I needed even if it was hard to hear and tough to bear. I needed that salvation, I needed that rescue, and without out, there wouldn’t be anything else in this post, or anything else to talk about. I had my life saved, and I am so thankful to know amazing people and count them as a true family.  Onward.

In the last year, I’ve had some serious professional setbacks. I’ll own them, I’ll point out that my lack of communication prompted many of them, and those setbacks were scorched earth to my pride, ego, and how I feel about what I do. I can’t say it’s been a tailspin, but I’ve certainly more time this year questioning what I’m doing and where I’m going forward than any other year, including two years ago when I first got clean and sober.

But there are the nagging ideas that some of these setbacks are due to factors out of my control – that the climate of where I work has changed due to people making different elements a priority. This is not to say that these social conversations shouldn’t be happening (they should and must), but I think too there needs to be an awareness of the people who aren’t “toxic” or “problematic” being swept up and affected in the purgative efforts to bring in new voices and new creatives. What I’m saying is this, I believe that as we have more conversations about inclusivity and equality, it’s worth monitoring who gets pressed to the margins by those efforts in secondary or unintentional ways. The notion that you can just invert the dynamic between superior and subordinate as though you’re going to “teach people in power what it’s like to be powerless” is a dangerous one, and suggests that people lack a certain degree of self-awareness that going from bullied to bully doesn’t do much to stop the practice. A rising tide lifts ALL the ships, not just the ones you handpick.

Politicking aside, it was good and vital and helpful to me to get a bit of closure on some the setbacks that prompted the crisis I’m still experiencing. I got a chance to apologize, to own my shit, and I got a response that comforted me. I needed that. And that’s lesson #2 – owning your shit, owning who you are, what you do, how you sound, what you want to do, what you did, owning the mistakes, owning the willingness to admit those mistakes and try again helps you, even if you think it’s not dissimilar from dry-humping a hot cheese grater while you’re doing it.

This came up in a marketing on Sunday and blew my mind when it clicked into place – I have defined myself professionally and personally as this one sort of person who isn’t actually as bad a human or professional as I feared I was. I am by zero means perfect, and I certainly not everyone’s first choice or cup of tea, but I’m also not the leper at the city walls forever looking in and lost amid the masses. That’s a big deal for a guy who thinks of himself as the small kid who was sick all the time and driven to be smart so that people would want to hang out with him.

I have many people I hold as heroes and role models, and I am lucky to be able to spend time with them at this convention. We go eat sushi together, we sit on couches and talk not of work but of families and things we’ve done. New people come around and they’re not excluded. I like that. And this was the year I found out that I hold that hero/role model role for other people. Shocking, I know, because I’m just me, and I just do this stuff, and sort of get all long-winded about it, but it felt good to hear that I said or did things to help people. Which takes me to lesson #3 – you can have a positive impact on people without intentionally masterminding it. Being yourself, and being yourself passionately is visible and that’s totally fucking cool to do because people see that and it leads them to doing it to, in this positive domino chain of people being awesome.

I’m still working on how to process that one though. It’s one of those I-know-it-intellectually-but-emotionally-it-makes-as-much-sense-as-snakes-thumbwrestling things.

Speaking of heroes, there are those I have but have never interacted with directly, just been out on the edges near. They produce content where I’m an audience member, one of the many who say, “One day I’ll work with them. One day I’ll perform the right ritual and sign the Faustian deal and I’ll be lucky enough to work with them.”

I guess that ritual was the one where you walk over to a person and say hello and then ask them if they want to do a thing together, because that’s what I did, and I did get a chance to be a part of something huge and splendid and amazing. You’ll hear more about in the coming weeks and months, but if you jump on Twitter later today I’ll be talking about it somewhat.

And that’s lesson #4 the final lesson today – If you want to go do the thing, you have to go do something about it, and it’s not going to be handed to you. Want to be a _______? Then you need to go do that _________ so that people can see it and experience it. Want to have a chance to tick an item off your bucket list? Go have the scary conversation and be nervous and puke up eggs in a hotel garbage can then go do thing where people who you are 10000000000% sure have more talent in their toenails than you could muster over a thousand lifetimes work with you then shockingly spend the time telling you it was amazing. Yeah, that happened. It was awesome.

Stick around for more sweet blog action later this week. I’ll see you then. Happy writing.

 

Noir World, An Update

I’m going to start blogging in 2015 by talking about something I’m really proud of and motivated by. I want to share some parts of Noir World with you. Noir World is a game I’m making. It’s always been a thing I’ve wanted to do, get my name on the cover as a creator, not just the editor or contributor. I really doubted my ability to do it until I started writing draft after draft, and now forty-something drafts in, I’m very proud to call this project my own. The fact that every idea on the page is what I’d want a game to tell me, and it’s told how I’d want to explain it to someone is a very sweet cherry on this sundae.

So here’s a quick Noir World Q&A

What is Noir World?

Noir World is an Apocalypse World hack, where people play characters (called Roles) based on film noir tropes and staples to tell stories of crime, passion, regret, tragedy and violence. It’s a game of high interaction, simple mechanics and collaborative storytelling for 3 to 8 players.

What kind of characters can someone play?

As of this morning, there are over two dozen possible Roles, and the book by default includes the basic six – The Good Cop, The Cop On The Take, The Private Eye, The Fatale, The Mook and The War Vet. What will likely be a stretch goal are other Roles like The Politician, The Girl Friday, The Gambler and The Socialite. Two Roles, The Vigilante and The Ripper, aren’t true noir, but they’re really fun takes on Batman and the Joker. Because seriously, how could I pass up the chance to do my own spin on Batman and the Joker?

I barely know anything about film noir. Does this mean I can’t play?

Anyone can play this game. One of the big important elements I wanted to do when I made my own game was the idea that you didn’t need to have a very deep or very specific knowledge. A lot of games seem to have two “depths” – you can be new and play the game and have a pretty good time, but to get full enjoyment out of it, you need to have some great amount of experience or awareness. I wanted to avoid that.

What are some things you can tell me about the game?

It’s set in The City, which is a City the players design but the vibe is anywhere from a movie version of an existing city all the way to the gothic sort of Gotham in the animated Batman series. You’re not limited to the 1930s through the 1950s, you can easily make this modern just by saying it’s modern. (This way you can get in your Andersen, Fincher, Mann, Taratino,  and Scorsese stories too.) Players build The City on their own, naming different Locations and the People who occupy them. Maybe you make Joe’s Diner where the coffee is lousy but everyone goes there anyway, because Joe’s secretly running a casino in the back if you know the password. Maybe you make An Empty Lot Near The Train Station where everyone dumps bodies and doesn’t think twice about it. The City is entirely up to the players.

Unlike other games where you have a GM, or someone who sits at the head of the table and tells you what’s going on so you just react, that job rotates around the table, so that everyone has the ability to contribute to the story both as a Role and as Director (in charge of the stuff the Roles aren’t). Since the story you’re telling is generated at the start of play, the story gets told from a variety of perspectives and no one gets left out. That was another big concept for me – I’ve played a lot of games where a few people seem to be doing everything and many of us are just sort squeezed into the peripherary or just waiting until we can do something. Avoiding that and getting everyone a chance to tell the story they want was one of the reasons it’s taken so many drafts to come this far. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but I’m at a point now where I can say this game shares the spotlight pretty well.

The game hinges on complicated relationships that the players develop between themselves. Maybe you’re playing a Cop On The Take who’s been bribing a Citizen to stay quiet about something they saw you do while your partner The Good Cop has been trying to reform The Fatale as the Fatale’s ex-love interest The Reporter is desperate for the Good Cop to notice how he’d be a better choice for romance. Or maybe you’ve just convinced your best friend who just got back from the War to earn a little money on the side with you by ripping off a Mobster. Each Role has tons of possible Hooks to connect their awfulness to other peoples’ lives. By the time play starts, everyone’s mixed up with each other and anything could set it off … say a Crime.

But John, film noir is really gross and problematic. It has all this sexism and homophobia and racism and other stuff that’s a problem. Why should I play a game with that stuff in it?

You’ve found my biggest concern (no not just that you used “gross” and “problematic” in the same sentence and expect me not to make a face). Film noir and its genealogy out of hard-boiled fiction does have its problems when we apply what we feel and believe today to what they wrote. Yes. absolutely, there’s not a lot of LGBTQ or modern progressive thinking. And I’m not discounting any of that, because it’s relevant and important in what’s going on all around us. I don’t own a time machine, I can’t go back and change what they wrote 60+ years ago, all I can do is go forward and make sure that the focus of my game isn’t on perpetuating the -isms and phobias.

So, for example, all the Roles can be played by any player, regardless of race, gender, orientation, identification or other factor. And the relationships between Roles does not have to be heterosexual. (In fact, all the games so far have included some element of not-straight-white-dude-ness ranging from angry lesbian bank robbers to genderfluid war veterans and an incredibly complicated poly relationship built on crimes and lies.) Just because the game is built on a specific point of view and social context doesn’t mean we have to reinforce it. Anyone can play this game anyway they want.

When is it going to be done?

It’ll be done when it’s done, but I’m really feeling like 2015 will be the year it gets made into a book with art and printing and everything. At least, that’s my goal. I’m pretty well on track, I think. Everything I can think of it needing as foundation is done, then I shall hand it off to an editor or two and then get some nice layout and art done. After that, it’ll go to crowdfunding. I’m right now trying hard to not freak myself out about those things (it’s always easier when the project isn’t your own, right?), so I’m focused on getting the text out of my head and onto paper and playing it more to see how it works. But I’m doing work on it practically every night (it and Minecraft have become my two stress relievers after work), so there’s always progress.

Where can I get more information?

You can follow me on twitter (@awesome_john) and you can follow the game on twitter (@noirworldrpg).

I want to play! Where can I do that?

I’ll be at Dreamation on February 19 – February 22** in Morristown NJ running the game several times and I’d like to run it at GenCon this summer. Beyond that, I don’t have anything concrete scheduled, but it’s not hard to find me on twitter and ask to set something up. Yes, it can be played online too, so it’s great for Google Hangouts.

**bonus points if you wish me a happy anniversary that weekend. Double bonus points if you also mock Canada.

Thanks for giving me a few minutes to tell you about how things are going. I hope you’re writing and creating and doing well.