Monday, May 19, 2014

Story Games - Microscope

    A divergence from the normal topic of writing and delving into a bit of gaming.

    I got a chance to play a story-telling game called Microscope on Sunday. I've heard about it and read the rules, so I had an idea what I was getting into and had a blast. The basic premise is that 2-4 players are exploring a period of history that they've created. It can be modern, fantasy, sci-fi, or whatever you happen to feel like. You make the "bookends" of the timeline and then each person makes either a period or event. The only restriction is that events have to go under a period and the bookends are valid periods. All you need are some note cards [3x5 work well], a writing instrument, and a table to lay everything out on.

    Play is pretty simple. Each person will take turns making periods, events, and scenes in the game. Periods are place in the timeline, events are placed under a period, and scenes go under an event. I should note that each period/event/scene is light or dark, indicating the general tone. You may have a dark themed period, but have light events and scenes underneath or vice-versa. The first person in the round is called the lens and sets the focus or topic that will be explored during the round. They also have an option to place two items on the boards such as a period + event or an event + scene. They may just make a scene and leave it at that. Play continues clockwise with the other players placing one period/event/scene. At the end, the lens get the option to go again with the same choices as the start. After the lens is done, the person on the right makes a legacy, which is a theme about the previous round of play, then makes an event or scene about it. The lens then shifts to the left and play continues.

    While this is a story telling game, there's a role-play mechanic in terms of the scenes. Be default, the person creating the scene creates a question that needs to be answered during it. Such as - Does King Rodrick escape the assassin? The player designates mandatory roles [The king, the assassin], plus any other ones that are deemed important. He may also restrict roles if they aren't appropriate. Starting on the right, players choose either a mandatory character or makes one up that's in the scene and have an investment on what's happening. The cavaet is that the mandatory characters must be played, so those spots must be taken by the last players as needed. Play then commences until the question is answered. This may leave other things unresolved, but that's an opportunity for more scenes.

    The beauty of the system is that you can jump back and forth along the timeline to explore whatever interest you as long as you stick to whatever the focus of the round is. You cannot contradict what's been established already, so if the town's been destroyed in a period, you can't visit it in a future period. But you can go back to before the destruction and explore events or scenes in the town.

    This is a cooperative game and there's some mechanics for trying to change how a scene happens and players are encouraged to ask questions to clarify events or periods. Outcomes are rarely dictated and everything is fair game. An example is the death of the warlord which was the starting period of the timeline in the game we played. One player setup a situation surrounding the the death of the king and his heir. Another player added a scene about it which took it in a different direction that the 1st player didn't expect or plan. Not to say that it's bad, but there's no "ownership" once something is on the board. You may create the great city of the Gods and another player may nuke it from orbit. Someone could be a jerk and spoil another player's fun, but hopefully that's not the case.

    One of the players pointed out this is a good way to create a history for an RPG if you were so inclined or a shared world for writing between friends. I'm looking forward to playing it again. As a note, we had 4 players and while the first round drug a bit, once we got familiar with the game, things sped up. In the four hours of play, we managed to get three rounds done. I have the cards and, if time permits, post the timeline in its full glory. The author of Microscope has put out another game called Kingdom. This one focuses on a single community or group. I've not played it, but hope to do so in the near future.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

World Horror Con - The Review [Part 2]

Continuing review of World Horror Con

    Late start due to excessive fun the day before, but got rolling in time for the first panels. This was a big one for me - Pitch Workshop / Editor Meet & Greet. I didn't have a pitch for them, but I wanted to get some idea on what's being looked for and get a few tricks. Also relevant was the moderator had done a bit of work on my novella and given me a metric ton of good feedback. Still working on getting that incorporated and ready to pitch to folks in the next few months. The editors on this panel were awesome and inviting, stressing they weren't gatekeepers or meanies that were keeping authors back. It's [almost] never personal and could just be a matter of timing. This is something I've heard quite often in the past. Collected a few cards and contact information before running off to the next panel on "Research in Horror".

    If anyone ever looked at my research history, pretty sure they would wonder WTF is this guy doing on these sites? A common thing among writers is that we read everything we can and if there's a question, we're off to find out the answer. With the advent of the internet, sources are easier to find and a good basis, but never forget the library or books that fill out the details. One of the panelist commented about using their vacation as a research and a tax deduction, because it was "work". They were joking, but you could see the lights go on in the other panelists. Another point made is that in the age of information & fact checking, you get it wrong and people will tell you. Often rudely. Snagged a quick lunch and then circled back to the next panel.

    Thought about this one and I have to say it disappointed me. In the Pitch panel, the editors were supportive. Not so much in this one. Pretty much the message was "If you're not famous, piss off, we're not interested. Also, if you aren't getting paid pro rates, you're an idiot for giving it away". These were big name editors and they basically had "their roster" and that was it. Invite only and "exclusive club" mentality. Vastly disappointing and honestly, made me angry. This dovetailed into the next panel "Advice to New Writers" which could be summed up as "Don't". Don't start unless you're willing to bust your ass to get noticed. Don't start unless you have thick skin. Don't start if you think you're going to make Steven King money. They were brutally honest. Writing as a job is close to impossible. The market isn't there like there was 20-30 years ago. Not great news, but as they said - "Writing is about passion. If you don't have the passion, go back to the cube".

    Fuck the cube. Not unless I'm desperate and even then, I'm tempted to get a job slinging burgers first.

    Last panel of the evening was "Finding You Voice". It's not a technical thing, but encompasses everything. If you read Steven King, he has a voice. George RR Martin has a voice. JRR Tolkein has a voice. It's the feel of the words, the execution of text, and fullness of story. And that's all about practice and the best stuff could be 20 years down the road as you refine your writing and get better. A good note to end the day.  Afterwards, met a friend for dinner, drank beer, and had a fun time socializing with him until the next event. Not a panel, but a show being put on by Deadite Press - "The Bedlam Sisters Sideshow". Holy crap was that a fun time. the stage wasn't the best, but the performers more than made up for those shortcomings. Think of a carnival sideshow and you've got the acts - fire dancer [only no fire, but lights]; a burlesque show based on the prom scene from Carrie; broken glass manipulator; bed nails [3 performers, the top one using a hula hoop]; and straight jacket escape. I'm bummed that it was only an hour and the next time I'm in Portland, I'll have to track down their performances.

    The final event of the evening was quite simply the most amusing bit. The Gross Out contest. 10 people get 5 minutes to tell the most revolting tale possible in front of 5 judges and a live audience. Last one was one by a guy grinding his teeth and talking about a dental procedure. This year's the subjects included ones including cannibalism, a horse act, doctors, pregnancy, food, and mother's day to name a few. Horror writers have some seriously messed up psyches when they put their mind to it. I'm not going into detail, since it's a "you had to be there" situation. Well worth it and as long as you weren't easily offended, enjoyable. And with that, I retired for the evening.

    Got up early to have breakfast with a buddy at a place called Waffle Window. Got a Belgian waffle with ham, bacon, and a jalapeno sauce. Very tasty, but sugary. Got back in time to listen to my friend, Christine Morgan, read a passage from "Sven Bloodhair" from the "Someone Wicked" anthology. She channeled her viking voice, adding a fun note to the reading. Being Sunday morning, there was only me and one other person [who won 3rd place in the previous evenings gross-out contest]. I read the story previously, but live readings are so much better.  Last panel of the day covered the topic of "Smut & Gore in Horror". The name of the panel really tells you all you need to know, except one thing - the writers aren't the people you think. One of the panel members looks like he'd be your kindly old uncle or grandfather. Yet he wrote some rather disturbing stuff. Well written, but rather off the wall. Another panelist worked in a warehouse and wouldn't stand out in a crowd. An interesting discussion and surprisingly clean.

    Afterwards I hit up a couple of folks to chat and make a few inroads into being a "professional". A positive and enlightening experience and one I look forward to repeating. Next year is in Atlanta and the year after in Provo. Not sure I'm up for those locations, but it's a temptation.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

World Horror Con - The Review [Part 1]

World Horror Con
    This last weekend was World Horror Con and that first time I've gone to a professional convention vs. a fan convention. Much smaller, less programming, and a lot more drinking/socializing. Had a great time, listened to lots of other authors, made a few contacts, drank [the bar is the natural habit of writers], bought a books, and focused some ideas for future projects. That's the high level view.

    Programming didn't start until late Thursday evening, so most of the day was spent setting up the exhibit booth, eating at Big Ass Sandwich [totally a meal in and of itself], and making introductions. My friend, Christine, took me along and began the long series of meeting folks. These are people I've heard of, read, and otherwise gotten to know via the internet. Now in person and quite amusing. Did I mention the hotel bar? They had one guy running the bar. I dunno if the Doubletree had ever hosted a convention of writers, but they needed another bartender.
    Panels started late, the first one at 8, with two more following. Unlike the fan convention, the panels were pretty highly focused and not plentiful. Radcon by contrast is a fan convention and has upwards of dozen things going on at once. You have to choose panels and often miss one or two that interest you. The "What Editors Want" panel turned out to be the most interesting, as editors gave advice on what they look for. Some advice was pretty basic [don't send fantasy to a horror call] or got really specific [Deadite Press goes for high concept writing, not normal or mainstream in any way]. It did congeal an idea, which needs to be written up, and then pitched at the next BizarroCon in November. The "Writing Characters" panel didn't add much and I'd been better off at the bar, stalking other writers for advice.
    Last panel was "Horror from the Page to the Silver Screen" and included F. Paul Wilson. He wrote a story called "The Keep" which was made into a film in the mid-80's. A terrible, terrible film. Recently, he had another story, "Pelts", turned into a film and had nothing by glowing praise for the director on that one. Found out that movies are strictly the domains of directors and that writers are treated like crap. Bad movie? You're seeing the directors "take" or "vision" on the script. Script could be a work of art, but in the hands of a director? Good luck. On the other hand, writers rule TV programming. The director is their bitch and needs to follow what they've put down. I must look into this TV business more, but only if I don't have to move to California.

    And now we get busy. Many panels, author signings, and socializing [aka parties]. Did I mention drinking? I keep coming back to this, because a] writers start early and b] many of those drinks were being taken out of the bar and into the panels. Would have thought the hotel might raise up objections, but didn't even blink an eye. Sadly the bar's tap list was pretty pedestrian, but we're in Portland and there's no end of good beer just a stone's throw away.
    "The Short Form" panel covered horror and how well a short story can convey it more effectively. Get that punch in and convey the emotional impact. The panelists pointed out that you got a better payoff in a shorter amount of time. Next panel talked about HP Lovecraft and his influence on Modern Horror. Lots of good historical information and how there's something of a renaissance of his writing. In the next year, there's 3 or 4 complete sets of his works by different publishers coming out, including one that will have original drafts and corrections. From personal experience, I've seen calls for many, many Lovecraftian themed anthologies lately and they've been doing exceptionally well.
    'F'd Up and In Love" had 4 writer couples talking about their relationships and how they approach their craft. A fun panel and shows that things can work out, just takes a lot of communication and understanding. "Coming Together" covered the topic of writing for yourself and your audience. Do you write just to please yourself, the audience, or both? The panels had diverse opinions on the subject, comparing it to masturbation [naturally] or performance art. I liked the idea that you're writing for yourself and knowing that somewhere [hopefully] there's an audience for it. If you aren't writing for yourself, you won't be happy and then it just becomes a chore.
    "Hardcore F'ing Horror" covered just what you think it would. The violent, extreme end of the genre. What is and isn't taboo. Turns out that many subjects are okay if done correctly. The exception seems to be the Holocaust and 9-11. A few of the authors pointed out that they've had hard times writing some of their stories as they push their limits. One of the things that I took away from this is that authors are normal people, we just happen to write our nightmares from time to time. Also, someone brought their kid to the panel and left about 20 minutes in. The moderator was like WTF? Who brings an 8-9 year old kid to a panel about shock horror? Really?
    Next came the Grandmaster award ceremony to Brain Keene. He made a great little speech and then posed for pictures. After meeting up with a buddy and dinner, went back and attended the Deadite Press party, chatted with folks, met more editors, and drank beer. Finally turned in around midnight cause I'm old.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

World Horror Con

    World Horror Con starts tomorrow in Portland and I have to admit to being a bit nervous. This is a con with some moderately big name attending and while I'm not going as a professional, I'm definitely going to network and learn. These are people I've read and followed and heard about for the past couple of years, but meeting them in the flesh is whole different situation. Am I going to be too big a fanboy or say something stupid or any number of things that might alienate them. Nerves. More than when I toss out a story for a call or review.

    Nerves aside, I'll get to meet Brian Keene and his wife. The crew of Deadite Press [Jeff Burk, Shane McKenzie, Carlton Mellick III, and more] and hang out at their press party.  I'll freely admit that I can't write bizarro horror, but I've read enough to make me admire those folks that can and make it entertaining. Some professional editors will be attendance and I get to thank one personally for looking at my novella. There's panels to attend, a live body piercing show, the gross-out contest, and lets not forget food. Portland is famous for all the foodcarts and there's many to be sampled.

    April produced only a single story and could not be considered a fruitful or productive month. It did spawn a new character and some ideas how to use her in future projects, including a call that surfaced a couple of day ago. On top of that, the Fossil Lake anthology got a reprint and the dead tree editions should be here today in time to take to World Horror Con.

    I'll do a debrief once I get back and gush about people more then.