Writing Curious/Crazy Experiment

As mentioned in my last blog about CampNaNoWriMo I’ve been listening to The Bestseller Experiment podcast. I first came across them via the author Gavin G Smith tweeting about them in October 2016, but I was busy, so I didn’t allocate any time to check them out. I was reminded of the podcasts existence in February by Gavin, who had once again tweeted about them; a shoutout to Gavin for his recommendation. I also owe Gavin an article in response to his recent interesting Cyberpunk article: The C Word.

For those that are not familiar, read this intriguing and crazy premise:

“Could you write, publish & market a Bestseller in one year?”

I wrote crazy because, well, it seems like it is. The thing is, it’s not entirely crazy, incredible things can happen with any work, and this premise has a clever marketing aspect to it. As I finished the first episode I was quite optimistic that this could work. Just take a look at the guests that they’ve had, it’s an extremely impressive line-up, and they give such brilliant advice.

It’s not just the guests that matter though. The show is hosted by the two Marks: Mark Stay and Mark Desvaux; check out their information at http://bestsellerexperiment.com/about/. At the start they discuss ideas from quite different perspectives, and they don’t always go easy with each other’s opinion. Since they are collaborating, they have a lot to figure out, I don’t want to spoil anything, but I think it is okay to say that a listener can imagine that writing with someone else could result in a big impasse. It quickly became evident to me that these interactions would also be a big draw for me, and likely other listeners. For most of us writers it’s a solo affair, so hearing two people discuss their approaches is quite useful.

At this point I think the Vault of Gold needs to be mentioned. This is a currently free ebook containing lots of information from their episodes. It might not be free for long, so this is another reason to at least give the show a listen.

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As I listened to more episodes, I was pleased to find that the two Marks have discussed so many writers concerns. I think they have done a brilliant job of building up their project, carefully not revealing too much early on, just snippets, adding to the mystery of the show.

By the middle of March I had listened to all the episodes currently available, and I eagerly awaited their next release. I don’t have a particular favourite, I think each is noteworthy; I noted in my previous blog that the Ben Aaronovitch episode is a popular one. Personally I think all the interviews were interesting, useful and enjoyable, and I don’t want to post spoilers. Since people like favourite lists so much, here is mine:

  1. Sarah Pinborough‘s wonderful energy, humour, some different takes on classic advice, and strong language. I plan on listening to this again soon, something I rarely do, so that’s very high praise from me.
  2. The Ben Aaronovitch bollocking, plus how they’ve responded since. Besides the outline issue, Ben gives heaps of good advice, it’s also an overall outstanding chat, don’t let the bollocking overwhelm the rest of the gems. This also deserves a second listen, there was just much in this episode.
  3. Having recently read seven books by Joe Abercrombie, I was really intrigued to hear what he had to say. Joe’s professional approach in particular was inspiring to me, again Joe gives a lot of good advice. Overall it’s brilliant, for example:

Be persistent. The longer you dance naked in the rain, the sooner you’ll be struck by lightning. Joe Abercrombie

I have a special mention in regards to Joe Hill. He gave a great interview, good advice, and it felt like friends chatting. I do have a confession, despite owning and reading several of Joe’s books, and loving them, I had no idea who his dad was. Even for someone like me who rarely looks in to the life of any artists whose work they love, I probably should have known that piece of information; if you’ve no idea what I am on about, like I didn’t previously, check out Joe’s picture. I think Joe would be amused, but also glad that his approach of making a name for himself has certainly worked with regards to me. I also now follow him on Twitter.

My rule when i get to a second draft is, ‘What’s awesome about this scene?’ I’m absolutely ruthless. Joe Hill

You can check out more guest quotes here:

We are now at the halfway mark for The Bestseller Experiment, I’m sure we can look forward to more superb guests, giving excellent advice. As for the two Marks, I don’t want to give any spoilers, but I will say that things are happening, and who knows what drama awaits?

I should probably update my iTunes review of them, I gave a good review before, but I am sure I can write something grander now. I’m convinced they’re not crazy, that this could actually work, even if for one of their audience, which they have said they’d be okay with, but still they are going for it. If you don’t try, you definitely cannot succeed.

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Be sure to check them out. What do you think of this experiment?

I should get back to #CampNaNoWriMo

RPG Lessons From Watching Games

At 16 I spent a lot of time visiting my local gaming shop. Due to this I got to regularly chat with the staff about gaming, often helping boxing up train or tram kits; it was a rite of passage. Being at the shop also gave me access to lots of other role-players, and particularly GMs. Thus I gained exposure to a wide range of opinions, about all sorts of games; in the early 90s it was rare for people to go online, so this was the best local place to go.

Occasionally a group would leave an open invite at the shop for a new player, or an individual seeking a group. So I made use of the invites and tried out several groups. It was a great way to try out different games, as well to hopefully become a regular in yet another great group. One of the groups I joined suggested that I just watch, which I initially thought was odd, since it’s normal to join start playing immediately. Why watch a game when you can play? This particular GM said it was a chance for me to see if would enjoy being in the group, without disrupting the existing game.

Being an observer at a game was surprising. Despite all chats I’d had with different people, playing with different groups, as well as reading articles, I hadn’t considered what watching a game could teach me. Nowadays with some groups filming their gaming sessions, and in particular popular celebrity groups, it has become easy to watch games, but back then it seemed alien. Whilst the celebrity gaming videos are focused on entertainment, not on education, they could still prove useful to someone wanting to analyse them.

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As an observer I had a chance to perceive things in a different way, since the situation was impersonal I was able to strive to be more analytical. One of the first things that struck me was that since I didn’t know any of the group, and thus their anecdotes, I found it extra annoying when a player disrupted the game to mention random things. Doing so is generally referred to as going Out Of Character (OOC), although I think OOC is a misleading way to phrase the issue; my opinion likely requires some clarification, so I’ll write about that another time.

I got to see how the group handled focusing everyone back on the game. It was surprising, to my young perception, how often individual players helped the group to refocus on the game. Even though I knew that my players sometimes helped my games out, I had thought I was predominately the one refocusing the group back to the game.

Confirmation bias is funny like that.

Since I was not invested as either a player or GM, I got to watch a bunch of strangers energetically chatting and unwinding. Because I did not have to think about running a game, or how I’d play my character based upon some new stimuli, this allowed me to track their levels of fun. Even when a player was going OOC for quite a while, the group didn’t complain; likely due to the difference between school kids and adults. Whilst I am sure my presence influenced the players and the GM at least a little bit (Hawthorne Effect), I don’t think it was overall an issue. Mainly because I kept quiet, but also because the GM had done this with their group before. Finding that balance of how to prioritise the game whilst hanging out and relaxing friends was something this group seemed to have found, they were not pretending for my benefit.

During my first few years of GMing, at 11 and 12, I had it often felt that I needed to quickly get the game back on track. The idea was driven by concern that the actions of one or two players would become too disrupting for others, and thus risks annoying the others. A major reason for my thought was due to trying to cram as much role-playing as possible in to my lunch break whist at school; I wrote about those sessions here: Role-Play meets Lord of the Flies. At 14 I was running Warhammer with a different group of players in the school library. Later in 1990 we changed to Cyberpunk, and I started running day long sessions. Whilst we had long periods of keeping IC during the 10+ hour sessions, we did have OOC tangents, but they were uncommon.

This links to another lesson about not being as self-conscious when running games, as well as to stay relaxed when being observed by others. This would prove helpful when later running games, be it tabletop, LARP or PBM, as well as talking to customers. As well for games when I’ve had a player observing.

For the next blog post I’ll write about another lesson I learned whilst at another group I watched. Part 2.

RPG Lessons From Watching Games by Batjutsu

Vampire, Batman and the Origin of my Nickname

Vampire, and by extension the World of Darkness, has had a massive effect on my life as well as how I developed my nickname. Given the power of nicknames it is no surprise that Vampire is more than a hobby to me, it lead to work and could even be argued to have become part of my identity; although crucially I do not think I am a literal Vampire.

I was sixteen when I first played Vampire the Masquerade; it had only been out for a few months. I was fortunate enough to have been invited in to a group of much older role players, so I was able to get a lot of experience from more worldly players. This proved helpful when I later started running Vampire for my long running group. At the time there were only a few supplements for the game, and there were none of the other games set in the World of Darkness had been released. Given the limited information and the newness of the game, it all felt very refreshing. This links back to the point about age, since our Storyteller Dale was in his 30s, he brought in all sorts of different cultures, not just USA or European ideas. Over many sessions our characters met all sorts of unusual antagonists; a deranged yogi was my favourite. All in all quite different from my experiences playing games like D&D, Cyberpunk or Warhammer. I quickly knew Vampire was going to be something I was going to play a lot, plus another thing I wanted to collect.

I was fortunate in that I had been brought up loving all sorts of music. I had become obsessed with metal and particularly thrash in 1989, but by 1991 I was broadening back out again. Vampire played a big part in influencing what music to investigate; I am sure it did for many gamers.

In the summer of 1992 I was working at a computer shop, and the boss insisted that everyone had to have a nickname. One of the young staff members couldn’t think of anything, so since he was slightly annoying the boss nicknamed him Snot! The computer shop was next door to the local games shop, and this led to the boss asking me about my visits to that shop during my breaks, and my role-playing obsession, and a brief explanation about Vampire the Masquerade. Since I did a lot of long-distance running, generally late at night, I was very pale skinned and surprisingly strong for my slender frame, which led to the boss deciding that I should be called something vampire related, and this led to me being given the nickname of Bat. When I got to college the new large social group I spent most of my time with had other people called Richard, so my nickname was used instead.

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Unfortunately this Bat nickname has resulted in numerous conversations with new people about where the nickname comes from, and they always guess it’s to do with Batman. I’ve even had to deal with some odd enquiries like whether I can do the Batdance(Batusi), or my opinion on Batman versus Superman, shish. My family have purchased me several Batman t-shirts and jumpers to help rub this in. Eventually I embraced (yep, pun intended) this Batman tie in, after all given the cultural significance and number of Batman stories it is an iconic character. So far I have avoided any Batman cosplay as Vampire-Batman, but I have done an undead-Batman.

The Batjutsu nickname came from wanting a unique handle for using online, as well as email address. Given that my obsession with martial arts matched that of role-playing, I decided on the jutsu addition. This was also a way of differentiating from Batman, although Batman is a black belt in jujitsu, of course.

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All in all, I am quite thankfully that I was given the nickname Bat, especially considering what my old boss could have come up with!

5 Positive Role-Play Lessons

Continuing on from the previous articles that started at https://batjutsu.wordpress.com/2016/03/19/cyberpunk-rpg-and-crpg-style-and-substance/

Julian, the Dungeon Master from the high school lunch group I was in, introduced me to Pete I think in 1989. I’d been buying Skaven figures off Julian, painted by Pete; even whilst at high school Pete was a great model painter.  I don’t recall specifics about my initial conversations with Pete, but I do recall that they were relaxed and that it was easy to have a dialogue with him, as opposed to him dictating at me like the other older lads did.

Cyberpunk 2013

1 Explain what something is, not its competitors

Pete explained the Cyberpunk setting well, and I don’t recall him saying bad things about other gaming systems. I grew to appreciate how important that is, focus on what a product is, not on differentiating between its rivals.

Over the years, I’ve been regularly asked questions by experienced role-players about a new game, and they would often ask for comparisons to systems that they already knew. Since I was being explicitly asked to compare, I did so. Whilst comparisons can work well, speeding up the learning curve, but deviating in to negative critiques of other products, all too often results in a time sink that needs further clarifications. If only because it requires people to know other systems, but also to understand what comparative point you are making.

I have grown to understand that people are inclined towards defending how they’ve spent their time, it’s natural for people to feel they are being criticised for their choice of game system and setting. This is particularly magnified if they love said system. This topic can have the additional obstacle as it is common for gamers to discuss their idea of ‘the perfect system’. Perfection is something to aspire towards, whilst being an illusion, and even getting close to such an ideal would be at best just personal preferences. Thus, conversation points are all too easily mixed together. Additionally, I often found that as more points are raised, eventually the original question can get lost amidst overwhelming information.

The above reasons are why I have found focusing on comparisons to be a poor approach. Of course it can still prove to be an effective way of explaining things, but I’d suggest mentioning as few as points as possible. These days I try to focus on more positive aspects, and to stay on target: explaining what a setting and system’s focus is, and its pros and cons.

2 Give things a try

Until 1989 I had mostly played 2nd Ed AD&D, it had been overall great fun, but the games were focused on clearing a dungeon room by room, stat development, without much thought about the setting. One of the fascinating things about playing Cyberpunk 2013, was the emphasis on characters talking and stand-offs, trying to navigate prolific corruption, in a game world full of people in bad situations. With no clear indication of who was good or evil, the fact that so many people were armed and dangerous, added to the finality of combat, it was great to have a reason to talk first, but with the pressure of talking fast.

After the chaotic experience I’d had with my old AD&D lunch group, were choice and repercussions were often disconnected, this game was well run. This was down to the combination of being in a good group as well as having a good referee. This is a lesson I have appreciated ever since, play in games you really enjoy, I had the luxury of trying out so many different groups. Years later I played great D&D games that also focused on more mature plots, it helped not being kids at school, which once again highlights that the group is the big factor in what makes a game.

Don’t be afraid to chat to the group about their play-styles. Try things out, and negotiate about balancing your goals with the other players. If you don’t reach a satisfactory compromise then consider moving on. Since fun is the heart of gaming, don’t torture yourself, or others.

3 Walking through the rules

Pete ran the games well, we enjoyed ourselves, and I can recall some great moments even now. We were not required to become experts of the rules, and certainly not within a single gaming session. Yet despite not being rule experts, the initial several sessions still went well. The lesson I took from this links back to mentoring, which I’ve written about previously. Even if you are playing a simple gaming system, try to introduce the rules in parts, reveal the complexity at a rate the players can cope with. Determining how much is too much is a subtle skill; I’ll explain my opinion another time.

Generally I think it is better to introduce things a bit slower, than to overwhelm players. Context is a key part of understanding, and it is hard to provide any depth during an introductory rules overview. Look at how come board or card games introduce rules over time, for example Dominion ignores curses at the start.

 

Night City 2013

4 Letting Go

My first character was a Solo called Thermo, a cool streetwise mercenary with a minimalistic appearance, cliché but fun. Since I knew practically nothing about the setting, never mind the fact that I was just 14 years old, I went with the idea of the character being the strong silent type. Thankfully it worked well enough, and also helped me learn the game system, whilst helping me to role-play what I had designed.

Similarly, my friends played interesting characters, a few I can still recall even to this day: Black Rain, Jack Deth, along with an NPC Netrunner whose handle was The Idol. Unfortunately I forget the name of the Fixer played by Michael. This is odd since after playing for a while, Pete proposed Michael and I swap characters, since Michael had been playing his character more like a psychopath; not sure the reason Pete didn’t have Michael make a new character, I think it was simply it was quicker to swap.

Within a single gaming session Thermo, my old character had undergone a massive change. The character now had a red Mohawk, painted the back of his leather jacket to show a nuclear explosion surround by lot of flames, with ‘Thermo’ painted across the jacket top. The character was also now quick to resort to gun diplomacy. It was odd seeing my character played this way, but Michael was enjoying himself, so I didn’t tease or correct him. After all I had agreed to the swap, Pete was okay with Michael making the character his own, and I found playing something different to be fun. Crucially Thermo was his character now, I learned to let go.

5 PC Allies can help, just don’t let NPCs take over

Early on the party went to a gun shop, but things quickly got out of hand. Black Rain and Thermo decided to chat with the person behind the security door. I’ve forgotten the specifics, but somehow the confrontational chat quickly escalated. Finally a demand was made for bullets, so a gun was pointed through the security slit at Black Rain, who quickly used his poison dart in his cybernetic eye. Then attempts were made to shoot through the door; this went on for a several seconds, as gun fire was exchanged between someone in the shop and the party, but then this stopped.

Thermo then decided to try breach the door with a fragmentation grenade. The thing was that Black Rain was still near to the door, and not wearing armour; besides a frag would likely do nothing to an armoured door. Luckily Black Rain was warned of the grenade, and passed his dodge roll. The party members took a moment to look at each other and contemplate killing Thermo, but we didn’t. Time passed, nothing was happening, the shock at the escalation oddly hit everyone, and the party become unsure of how to proceed, some still wanted to break through the security door, others wanted to leave before in the CyberPsycho squad had been called.

Finally Pete suggested we could call The Idol, since he was one of the party’s allies, and was close by. Once he arrived he operated as a cleaner, and so momentum was returned to the game. This was handled as calling in a favour. Crucially The Idol didn’t take over the situation, instead aided, and then as we all high-tailed it, he returned to his own plans. We owed a favour, but the party got a bit of mentoring in game without being made to feel like they were the sidekicks to an awesome NPC.

There is another lesson that I took from this game, but I will save that for a longer piece.

Over many sessions the group somehow managed to get things done without drawing the ire of the Megacorporations. But I’ll be honest and admit that I’ve forgotten a lot of what else occurred in the game, it was just too long ago.

I mentioned that Pete was great at model painting even at high school, so it was no surprise that he went on to become a professional artist and teacher. He runs Egg Head Miniatures, check out his work at https://www.facebook.com/eggheadminiatures/ and his shop is at http://stores.ebay.co.uk/eggheadminiatures.

Cyberpunk RPG and CRPG: style and substance

I have written an article Cyberpunk 2077 a smart linked chromed sandbox for NoobGrind. My gaming group and I first watched the Cyberpunk 2077 trailer around the time it was released; I think we had been looking up something to do with Cyberpunk, whilst playing in a Cyberpunk tabletop role-playing session. We were quite excited, in part because the teaser trailer was well done, but additionally because CD Projekt Red was involved.

The person running the gaming session that night has probably run more Cyberpunk games than most people on the planet, including me, and I’ve run a silly amount. So for us the announcement of Cyberpunk 2077 was a big deal, as I’m sure it is for many other role players around the planet.

I was first introduced to the Cyberpunk 2013 whilst at high school, I think in 1989 via the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). In 1987 I gamed just about every school lunchtime with some older lads, and via them I meet another old chap called Pete, although I forget exactly when. I had been introduced to some other systems via the D&D club, in particular Warhammer Fantasy/40K wargamming; I started collecting Skaven and Space Marines around then. Of course I had read Tolkien, as well as quite a lot of other fantasy and sci-fi, but looking back I don’t recall reading any cyberpunk books before 89. I think I had seen Dark Future in White Dwarf around this time.

Even back then Pete’s style of game mastering was different to the majority that I had experienced via the D&D club. There was a fun intensity combined with a mature character realism that was less common in most of the D&D games I had played; in part due to our ages. I got to know Pete a little bit, he was odd that he didn’t seem intimidated by people, he had mentioned studying Muay Thai, which I had seen on the telly as a young lad and I thought was psychotic and cool. I once saw Pete stand-up to a much bigger lad bullying people, the lad realised Pete was not worth the hassle and backed down. I think it was this confidence, as well as his relaxed attitude that gave Pete’s games an extra level of fun; it also helps that I was exposed to a new gaming system.

Back in the 80s there were not many cyberpunk style computer games, but my friends and I had at least had some solid reference points via movies, which helped us grasp the setting of Cyberpunk 2013 the RPG. The violence and cybernetics of Robocop was a big influence, the film noir style of Bladerunner, the example of ordinary humans trying to stop Arnie in The Terminator, and even psychic inspiration of a near future setting in Neo Tokyo of Akira.

By 1990 I had Cyberpunk 2020, and yet another expanding RPG book collection. At the time of writing this I started dictating gaming anecdotes about my Cyberpunk experiences, but I’ll save them for future articles.

I just hope that by the time Cyberpunk 2077 does come out, that I am healed enough to be able to play it without worrying about physical problems. Although I have Dragon NaturallySpeaking, if only real-life was as simple as buying a cyber arm for 3000eurodollars, as well as 1200 for a neural processor so I can get a Pain Editor!

NoobGrind Cyberpunk 2077 a smart linked chromed sandbox

Role-Play Timeline, article 2 https://batjutsu.wordpress.com/2016/05/17/role-play-meets-lord-of-the-flies/