So Metatopia 2014 happened…

My apologies to everyone on the delay in writing this post, I wanted to make sure I had all my thoughts together, and things have been hectic in the last week or so.

Metatopia is my second favorite convention of the year, behind GenCon, and only because GenCon actually puts me in a hotel around all my friends for nearly a week. Yes, Metatopia is one of my “home” conventions (along with Dreamation and DexCon), since it’s within 15 minutes by car and I can go home and sleep without the hotel expense, but it’s second to GenCon because for me, it marks the end of the convention cycle, with things laying dormant until late January when we all subject ourselves to the GenCon Housing Lottery/Sanity Check.

This convention, for those that don’t know, is the most professional of the conventions. Yes, there are fun things to do, but the majority of the convention is focused on getting both new people and new products on their feet. It’s a weekend of panels and workshops and playtests and focus groups, so that you could go from a focus group one year to a playtest the next and likely have a finished project by the third, if not sooner. I’ve seen people come in with an idea and then point out their game at the vendor’s table the next year or so later. It’s an incredible experience, both as someone who gives panels and answers questions, and as someone who offers feedback and advice. It’s one way I can re-stoke my own creative fires: being around all that activity, all that excitement of “Ooh, I’m making a thing!” it’s hard not to get swept up in it.

This year, I was totally caught up. I debuted my game, Noir World (it had a soft premiere at GenCon, but that was more casual and unannounced), to three playtests, and if you’ll permit a few more moments to talk about myself, I’d like to say something about them.

Noir World Is A Thing

If you know me, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I have a tractor trailer-sized amount of self-doubt. Yes, I’m working on it, but it’s pretty common for me to think I’m not good enough or not talented enough to produce a product. This comes primarily, I think, from having really amazing friends, and watching them create things that are truly beautiful, and wondering how I’m even supposed to come close. Sure, you can point to the fact that I do a lot of editing and even some writing on these big awesome things, but they’re not mine, even (or especially) while editing. For all my writing friends who say things like, “I am where I am in my career because of what you did for me John”, I still have a sense of “You, friend, had it in you the whole time, I just pointed it out.” which keeps me somewhat out of the loop on what getting something created feels like.

That changed last weekend. I was straight up terrified. Friday morning, I threw up twice on the way to my first playtest. That first test was not a “high-test” (more on that in a second), but still, these are people who play games (and in one case, is a designer and a dear friend), and I did not want to disappoint them or show them that while I can edit the pants off anything, I can’t put together anything remotely approaching “good” or “fun”. Because of how I’m writing the game, Noir World does not have one centralized GM/Storyteller/MC role, it floats around the table, because I don’t want one person doing all the controlling and all the other people just reacting. So, without me needing to “lead” the game, I can sit back, explain some rules and take notes. I took four pages of notes on that first playtest, and that includes two trips out of the room (again, to vomit and get a glass of water thereafter). The fact I was able to leave the room is stunning to me, I expected at any second someone to come running from the room screaming that everything broke down and that people are rioting in the streets and walls are on fire … but they didn’t. I got a ton of compliments and feedback and suggestions, none of which I knew what to do with, so I wrote them all down and spent the rest of the day feeling tentatively okay and not like a failure. The feeling was new to me, and I wanted to make sure I “earned” it (which is probably some really heavy shit I’ll have to talk about in therapy).

People to thank for Friday morning: Clark Valentine, Lisa Padol, Jonathan Bagelman, Betsy Isaacson, Ian Brown and Matthew Holland. You were the first people to see Noir World, and your kindness and help mean so much to me.

Something curious happened over the course of Friday – people started talking about my game, without my prompting. People I did know came up to me and asked if they could get into a test, and unfortunately, I had no room to accommodate them. When they asked if they could, I more than likely made a face of confusion, which led them to say, “I heard good things about it from so-and-so”, and they name-checked a person from that first playtest. I was not prepared for this, and assumed they were just being nice and saying whatever would be a comfort to me, at least until I had more evidence to suggest otherwise.

Now we get to late Friday, the high-test. This is a playtest where the players are people who have published games before, and can offer a more critical eye to things. For me, this was my do-or-die experience, since one of the people at the table created a game I used as a resource in making my own, and frankly, they intimidate the living snot out of me. Additionally, one of the people who issues many paychecks for me, and I was fairly certain that showing them something awful would lead to not only a cessation of work but a complete social media blackballing. Thankfully, I was out of things to hurl from my stomach by the time the test started, so I just did a lot of quiet dry heaving and nervous chugging of water.

Two surprising things happened. First, the game worked. People had a good time, and throughout the two hours I got another fourteen pages of notes about what to work on. Second, the issue with my game came up, and showed me my own ignorance and stupidity. Noir World is a game that works with film noir tropes, the majority of them now being labelled as “problematic” since there’s a fair bit of sexism, racism and phobic content in the source material. One of the possible player characters is the Femme Fatale (now called the Fatale), and frankly I wrote the FF as a mirror of the trope – lots of sex, very little agency. I got called out on it, but it didn’t make me want to give up. I apologized for it, and I promised to do better. It helps that I received MANY notes about how to make it more active and less sexpot, but I am thankful, sincerely thankful for Avery Mcdaldno pointing out to me that I have a long way to go in being the sort of considerate creator I want to be. I do not know how to express the combination of “Oh shit, you’re right, I’m sorry” and “I have learned a lot from this” short of promising that going forward, I will make better choices.

People to thank for Friday night: Darren Watts, Avery Mcdaldno, Justin Jacobson, Adrian Stein, Fred Hicks. All of you, wow, I owe so much to this group. I will keep working on this, and I want you to know your advice was not ignored and your time not wasted. Thank you for everything.

Once those two hours passed, and I floated on a cloud of shock, and just after I cried a little (but in that reserved way, where you can pass it off as allergies or a reaction to so many people obviously chopping onions), I sat down in the hotel lobby and began to transcribe all the notes – because this is important to me, I respect and value everyone who contributed even one second of time to help me, and I want to make sure that this idea I had turns into a game AND a product, because all of that is important to me.

It then dawned on me that the hard part was over. I got through the firing squad and was told I had a game and a product and that it went well. This made Saturday morning’s playtest far more fun. I wasn’t the guy tentatively showing people this thing I made, I was someone who was a fan of this game experience. And that is a great takeaway – Be a fan of your own work, and share that infectious enthusiasm with others. Saturday morning was kind of a stacked deck, my dear friends and future spouse were players, so this was more “lets have a good time” and less a field experiment.

Once again, the game was great, even using some of the information and ideas that Friday’s tests had given me. I think there is another takeaway – do not hold so tightly to your creation that other ideas, good ideas, can’t find their way in and help make the creation better.

People to thank for Saturday morning: Ericka Skirpan, Jeremy Morgan, Neal Tanner, Paul Stefko, Jamie Stefko, Lindsay McCollough. I love how much you loved my game. Thank you for spending the morning with me telling a terrible story and having a good time doing it.

Having indulged my own creation enough, let’s talk about the rest of the weekend.

Panels, People and Patience

As with every convention I attend, I give panels. At Metatopia, I try to give the same number of panels as I do at GenCon, if not moreso, thanks to the proximity of home as a respite. Also, I know where all the food is and where the great quiet escape places are. There is no way I can remember easily or spell correctly all the names of people who came to my panels, so I will wave my arms broadly and say a collective thank you for your time and interest. I hope something I said, whether about Poochie the Dog or about the Oxford comma or about the inevitable collapse of stupid people, or something in between, was helpful to you. Thank you for listening. I hope I was not too boring.

Conventions are also a great testing ground for me, they let me put into practice the things I learn in therapy, and let me exercise my mental health muscles. Between boundary setting, toxic situation/person excisement, or even taking time for myself to sit with friends and laugh, this was a good weekend to establish myself as I want to be, not carry shitty baggage of situations and applesauce that aren’t my own and otherwise take care of myself in the most constructive and healthful way. Sure, I got a chance to show off some new clothes and a new haircut, but I also got a chance to say “no” to things and people I don’t want to get involved with, and a chance to show people the good things I’ve got, because I do have them, even if I don’t make as large a fuss about them as I do the negatives. But that’s changing. For the better.

I end this post with a request. Well, two requests. First, I ask your patience with me. As I write this, there’s a lot of good and amazing things going on in my life, and a lot of the old entrenched shit is getting blasted away. There will be a great many changes in the coming weeks, I have no doubt of that, and I ask each of you reading this to do your best to be patient with me as I make the change from where I am to where I’ve always wanted to be. Also, for some people, that’s going to put you on the outside looking in, and I cannot say I’m terribly sorry for that. This is what I have to do for me. It’s not malicious. It’s not vengeful or spiteful, though you may take it that way. This is what I need to be the best me possible, and I can only ask you respect that. I leave that to you.

Second, I ask that you do something. I don’t care what, just that you do a thing you’re passionate or excited about, and get past whatever you’ve been delaying about it. If you’ve been meaning to start writing that book, put words down? Are you struggling with game mechanics, write them down. Remember that you can always ask for help, that there are people eager to help, it just takes you being brave and giving it a try.

I was brave, and you can be too.

Let’s talk more later this week. Happy creating.

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