tabletop gamer, writer & visual artist

Category: blog

To (white) family & friends:

We must support, listen to, and learn from our fellow black and brown human beings during this state of emergency. We know racism is deeply rooted in this country. We must publicly acknowledge institutionalized violence against people of color and support positive change.

I’m not writing to explain why “all lives matter” is an offensive response to black lives matter. Look it up. Figure it out.

I’m not writing to explain why “staying neutral” during these protests essentially endorses police violence and the execution of black people.

We can’t look away. We can’t stay silent. This is why people are demonstrating and protesting: We must acknowledge that cops are executing people based on the color of their skin, and we must find ways to end this injustice.

For the Love of Modiphius!

Time and again, I debate whether or not to dedicate time to writing regularly on my blog site. I often feel—like today, while I’m sitting at Coffeehouse Northwest with a dirty chai and chocolate croissant—I should be writing or developing my current RPG campaign instead (more on that soon).

But you have to write regularly to write well. I keep coming back to the idea of blogging because I know I need to write more quickly and freely without over-editing. I can save polish for finished works and need to retrain my brain and fingers to let words flow. It’s so important as a writer, and a lesson that I’ve taken too long to (re-)learn (over and over again, yes, I know).

As discussed in my earlier blog post, I want to blog (primarily) about tabletop role-playing games. Why? Because I feel like we’re in the middle of an exciting RPG Renaissance, and I want to draw attention to the games I love; I want to contribute to ongoing conversations about why and how role-playing games work, and why and how they sometimes fall short.

Why I’m (not) a writer

One of my most memorable experiences, while working at Longfellow Books in downtown Portland, Maine, echoes in my mind 14 years later, as I contemplate how I invest my creative energy and what future I may still have as a writer. It’s difficult, after you reach the age of 40, to look at all the years that have passed, all the time you’ve spent doing so many things other than writing, and you realize you’re not only not closer, but perhaps further from the dream you once had of becoming a published author.

Living and working in downtown Portland, Maine in 2005 was perhaps one of the best years of my life. I’d just finished my Masters degree in Ohio, had packed up everything I owned in my little Chevy S-10, and moved my temperamental cat Copernicus and I to the New England, to make a new home and live out my dream of becoming a writer. Two years in a graduate program had killed my desire of pursuing a university career, and I’d started writing my first full-length novel, Mirror Breaker. I knew no one in Maine. But with a sense of adventure and some determination, everything seemed to fall into place within a month after arriving. I spent one week in a motel and two weeks canvasing for a non-profit before I found a studio apartment downtown and secured what was and still is (if I could afford it) my dream job: working as one of four employees in a small independent bookshop.

Entering the darkness of the soul

For over a week, I’ve been struggling with my next blog post, and I feel so stuck in the muck of it that I’ve decided to just start over.

The goal of my next post (this post) was to continue my reflections on my four-part soul concept, and to hopefully arrive at some conclusions. But I started doing what I told myself from the beginning that I need to stop doing. In fact, I even starting my blog post by writing, “Rather than continue to read, cut, paste, and organize”… (blah, blah, blah), I need “to explore and develop the concept.” And then I spent hours and hours reading about particle physics (which I don’t really understand) to develop a metaphor for the soul, comparing the components of an atom to the structure of the soul.

It still might be a good idea, but—without getting into quarks and gluons and all sorts of other things I don’t really understand—atoms contain three components, not four, unless I want to add some pseudo-scientific hocus pocus about dark matter (in which case, why am I trying to concretize my ideas in the scientific theory of particle physics?)

Rather than try to mash together and encapsulate potentially incongruous concepts, I need to concretize my own core concept. What I think is worth noting (from my first draft of this post): after last week’s post, I found myself reflecting more on Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, especially his concept of dust, the idea that consciousness and the fuzziness of reality may be linked to dark matter. Yes, I do want to utilize dark matter as a pseudo-scientific element in my soul theory. But rather than try to find magic in scientific theory, let’s start with the fuzzy hocus pocus and just create something that works for us, shall we?

dark_matter_pie_chart__still_1Let’s consider the possibility that, on some level, reality is created by consciousness. Or, our experience of reality is created by the singular perception of our consciousness. If we consider the possibility that many realities exist simultaneously, but we only perceive one, then perhaps this “singling out” of our current reality explains why our universe is comprised primarily of dark matter and dark energy—stuff we cannot perceive on the electromagnetic spectrum. What if visibility (perception) is what defines reality, and thereby also the soul? Does this plummet us back into a light and darkness duality? Or can we find a subtler and more complex truth?

 

 

Attributes: quantifying the Body & Soul

bc0b7fa1d9e4041fe4c3a165733ca487I’ve always been obsessed with the number four and four-point scales (or by extension, eight-point scales). Whether rating men or movies, what further delineation does one need than 1=below average, 2=average, 3=above average, and 4=exceptional? Yes, I use half points (and therefore, technically, an 8-point rating system) because let’s be honest, I’m one of those critics who rarely awards a perfect 4 (Daniel Craig in Casino Royale, 4 and 4). Nonetheless, sometimes you’ve got to give a 3.5 where it’s due (Hugh Jackman in the first X-Men movie, for example).

So anyone who knows me well won’t be surprised if I adopt a 4 or 8-point scale or rating system for my RPG. Because I want to include superhuman, almost godlike abilities, an 8-point scale feels more appropriate, with 1-4 representing normal human abilities. (Without going into too much detail, it’s helpful to think of the scale as exponential rather than linear, so 8 isn’t twice as good as 4, it’s sixteen times better).

But this post isn’t really about numbers or statistics. The trick for creating the right “feel” for an RPG isn’t in the numbers as much as it’s in the words we use to define characters’ capabilities. How do we divide people up into universal attributes so we can quantify and differentiate their aptitudes? And more importantly for me—how do I implement my multiple-aspect soul concept while keeping attributes relatively simple? No one wants six to nine basic attributes, then four more special “soul” attributes piled on top of that. (Or at least, I don’t.) I loved the concept behind virtues and humanity when Vampire: The Masquerade was first released. But nine attributes, a health stat, a blood pool, a willpower stat (permanent and temporary), three virtue stats, and a humanity stat—it was a bit overkill. I find the more stats that comprise a character (attributes, abilities, whatever you’d like to call them), the less significant some of them become. And sadly, one or more (or all) of the virtues were often neglected by Storytellers.

Plots & spontaneity

It’s been difficult deciding the next step. I’m torn between developing my own rules versus relying on the preexisting structure of a published game system. Even if that preexisting structure allows great versatility and customization, will it be the right fit for what I want to achieve? For instance, I’ve been reading about Powered by the Apocalypse RPGs, especially Urban Shadows (which seems to make the PbtA structure a bit more accessible—and interestingly enough, I find Urban Shadows more akin to the “apocalypse” story I want to share than Apocalypse World). Then I find myself faced with the yet unanswered question of what better suits in-depth storytelling, more traditional game mechanics like D&D and other d20 systems with which everyone is familiar, or a more non-traditional game structure like PbtA that puts storytelling also in the players’ hands? Are the “easy-to-pick-up” and spontaneous qualities of PbtA suitable to a world I want to weave thick with plots and secrets? I think ultimately, I want the game structure to grow out of the themes and setting, but complexity, accessibility, and functionality of the vehicle for a story should always be kept in mind. I also need more experience playing various RPGs before adapting anything. Who knows, perhaps I’ll return to Mutants & Masterminds.

153464So do I return to content, the humanoid and alien beings that inhabit the fictional world I want to create? Do I further delineate concepts of the soul as they pertain to the setting and such entities, so that key game mechanics emerge from those concepts? Perhaps, if I want to create a setting thick with history, plots, and secrets, I should consider—not only (or perhaps instead of) committing all such content to writing—creating game mechanics that facilitate running such a game? To take this a step further, I’ve considered how to go about the unfolding of plots and timelines, to instill in players a sense of urgency and anticipation, for events leading up to the impending apocalypse.

The conundrum to which I return over and over again is simple: How much of a story (the plot) do I clearly delineate, and how much do I leave open-ended for others to create their own stories within the world I want to create? Do I want to tell a story, or do I want to create the essence of a certain kind of story? What do my players desire?

 

An (un)believable apocalypse

Right, no fretting over the imperfections of last week’s post or missing my self-appointed Monday date with blogging. I may be a day (or two) late, but I’m here. Let’s get on with it, shall we?

For a very long time, I’ve had a vague idea about writing (or “telling”) a sort of apocalypse story. Not post-apocalyptic, but of an apocalypse, a story about the world directly before and during its end. But I also say “sort of” because—I suppose like many post-apocalyptic narratives—the world doesn’t actually end. The world as we know it ends; the world and its inhabitants undergo dramatic change, and the rules change (this is the important bit, to which I’ll return later). So to be more precise, I want to tell a story about the events leading up to the world-as-we-know-it falling apart, then paint the epic beauty that is that falling apart. I know, it’s been done, almost as often as all the stories about “the world after the fall”. What do I have new to offer, especially if my idea is only vague? Well, that’s a very important question that I’m going to set aside for a moment. Don’t worry, I don’t want to tell another zombie story. But I first want to dig into my current creative process here.

watchtower2My vague ideas have followed numerous paths, often stopping before they start, so that despite reoccurring themes and concepts, I’ve never followed any one idea to its conclusive apocalypse. In fact, I often find myself more caught up in what happens before the end. Perhaps my wanting to tell this story is a bit like the millenarian Christian prophesies of Armageddon with which I grew up as a child; although ever present in my mind, just ahead in the near future, it never actually comes to fruition. Or perhaps I’m caught up in a particular zeitgeist—that portion of human civilization that seems hellbent on (the idea of) its own destruction.

The next “big” project

wp-1485241867040.jpgI’m going to do it. I’m going to start blogging. Why? Because I need to write MORE. Period. I also need to hold myself accountable, to not only whisper to myself “I need to write,” but to create a work space for all the public to see, and to challenge myself to fill that work space with verifiable progress.

Not only do I need to practice writing, I’m also recognizing (as in “cognizing again”) the value of reflection—one of those essential tools that come naturally to us when we’re young and discovering the world, but that we neglect once we think we know enough to authoritatively speak about the world. Rather than stubbornly stick to what I think I should be writing, I must allow—if not, challenge—myself to explore and consider yet unknown possibilities.

Perhaps I am, in part, inspired by my (now divorced) parents who, facing age 60, have been taking stock of their lives and fretting over their mortality. While I help my mother edit her memoir, I’ve recently been engaging my father in “big” conversations about our relationship, and why we haven’t been as close to one another as I am, for instance, with my mom. It really is a big, somewhat complex topic (and not the topic of this post); my point here is that opening a dialogue with my father, an activity that required energy, attention, some discomfort, and patient, thoughtful determination, has proven fruitful. Earlier this evening, I talked with my dad on the phone about his reflections over the past week (following our email exchange and after he also met and talked with my brother in person)—and opening that line of communication, to reflect on our relationship, has set us on a journey to improve that relationship.

Similarly, I need to improve my relationship with writing. Certainly, I am in my own way grappling with my own mortality as I stare at my soon-to-be 40-year-old self in the mirror, and I wonder, “What do I have to show for the past 20 years?”

So, it’s time to recognize a few truths, some of which I’ve come accept over the past year or so, and some of which I’m affirming here and now:

  1. Just as much as I once aspired to be a writer or visual artist, I’m also a gamer. So let’s include game creation in my public creative persona, eh? (I know, what took me so long, right?)
  2. Just as a writer must read, so must a game designer game—and in my case specifically, if I want to write an RPG, I need to spend more time playing RPGs and a greater variety of RPGs. Reflection also requires experience, and let me (publicly) confess, I don’t engage enough with literature, the fine arts, or with the gaming world.
  3. (And this is the “big” one) I’ve become so accustomed to organizing information, that my default impulse when initiating a project is to create an organizational structure before sinking my teeth into the content. You could even argue that this blog post is a structure or framework I feel I must create before delving into what I really want to do, which is write content for an RPG. I use Excel daily at my work, collecting and organizing data, crafting reports, and this practice (for better or worse) has become my dominant modality.

In my mid-20s, I learned that creating an outline before writing a novel killed my interest in the story (because I already knew what was going to happen), and my greatest success came from simply writing and discovering the story as I wrote.

I need to re-train my brain to generate content first, and to let the structure evolve from that content.

So, in large part (I know, I should have learned this truth long ago), I’m blogging to establish the practice of writing, the practice of reflection, the practice of exploration. Rather than limit myself, as I’ve commonly done in the past, to the “big” project, I’m deliberately setting a course to engage in related activities, whether that means writing about the creative process here, or participating as a player in a new RPG with a bunch of strangers. After all, I’m no Emily Dickinson.

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