2013 Review of the Year

The changes this year were seismic ones. Obviously, the far bigger and more challenging development was the arrival of the twins. deli went back to work shortly after the posting of the previous entry in this blog, so my previously quite random writing schedule is no longer workable. I’m on childcare duties every weekday from 8 to 5 on average, and between dinner, bedtime, handovers and actually trying to retain some semblance of human contact, that means my writing day is down to three or four hours in the evenings.

Deadlines concentrate the mind. So do constraints. I am so concentrated right now that I can taste the words.

The other big change was the move from Cubicle 7 to Pelgrane Press. By late August, I knew that something had to change. Previously, I was able to juggle writing and line development duties relatively easily, but then I got hit by a quadruple whammy of Twin 1, Twin 2, the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary and a bunch of extra writing work. Nothing got dropped, but it became increasingly clear to me that things had to change. The post-GenCon shakeup, coupled with Pelgrane’s sudden soaring and resulting expansion proved to be the optimum time to switch companies. I’m still Line Developer for the Laundry Files, but stepped back from my involvement in DWAITAS, The One Ring and Primeval. I’m happy with the work I did on all three lines, but DWAITAS and The One Ring both deserve their own dedicated line manager.

Over at Pelgrane, I’m working on a dungeon campaign for 13th Age entitled Eyes of the Stone Thief, and after that I’ll be working on the long-awaited Dracula Dossier. Pelgrane assignments always push me to work harder – there, I’m at the receiving end of the editorial feedback and line developer comments – and improve my craft. The first few months were challenging, as I joined just as the boys started teething in earnest, but I think I’ve found my feet now and I’m looking forward to the new year.

The other unexpected change was getting back into writing for computer games. I helped the Mandate kickstart itself to more than $700,000, and got to write scripts for David Bradley.

Warpcon’s coming up on the radar. I realised that at Warpcon 2017, it’ll be the twenty year anniversary of my first Call of Cthulhu scenario for the con – I’ve written a Cthulhu game for the con every year since 1997 (and thinking about, that means that next year is the 20th anniversary of my first Call of Cthulhu game. Whoa.)

So, as I look towards 2014, I see

  • lots of work that I’m enthused about
  • a healthier financial situation
  • (leading to the possibility of carving out time for my own stuff in the summer without worrying about bills)
  • Living Dungeons, Vampires, more vampires, and Tsarist space adventures
  • a triumphant return to GenCon

and

  • two happy boys growing up in a secure and loving home

2013 –  when you’re not sleeping, one year can contain an awful lot of changes.

 

The Twin Dilemma & Other Stories

The lack of updates over the last few months can largely be attributed to the birth and subsequent all-consuming tyranny of T & E (born Feb. 7th, and as I type, they’re having angry conversations with a toy dragon and lurid green toy dog, respectively). Their existence hasn’t overly impacted on my freelance writing, although life has been stripped down to the bone and all extra commitments – like blogging, or sleep – have been pared away.

So, highlights of the last few months:

  • For Cubicle 7, I’m editing, developing and wrangling the Doctor sourcebooks for Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space. The First and Second Doctors are done, the Third’s waiting for approval from the BBC, and the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and Tenth are in various stages of production.
  • DWAITAS got nominated for a bunch of Ennie awards, mostly for the Time Traveller’s Companion.
  • For The Laundry, GOD GAME BLACK came out at the start of the year, and I’m jugging bits of another three supplements. The Mythos Dossiers got nominated for an Origins Award.
  • Over in Middle-Earth, The Heart of the Wild is out to moderately great acclaim, and The Darkening of Mirkwood will follow soon.
  • The Primeval rpg also got nominated for an Origins Award.
  • I wrote a chunk of the recently-released World War Cthulhu, and have a pitch in for an interesting take on the Cold War.
  • Over at Pelgrane Press, The Zalozhniy Quartet is also up for an Ennie, and I wrote small parts of Hillfolk: Blood on the Snow, Double Tap: The Night’s Black Agents Expansion Book and  (through Stoneskin Press) stories in The Lion and the Aardvark and Schemers.
  • I’m also working on three other Pelgrane projects, one of which (The Dracula Dossier) has been announced.
  • Through Mongoose Publishing, the ongoing free epic The Pirates of Drinax continues to trickle out.
  • Development work on Rakehell continues, along with with on a cyberpunk game entitled Drone.
  • I think that’s everything.
  • No, wait. I was a stretch goal on James’ Alas Vegas, and wrote Yet Already, a game of warring timelines, for that. That all happened in the crazy twilight of March, so no wonder it slipped my mind.
  • Actually, that’s quite a lot.
  • Not quite half a Forbeck, but close.

2012 Review of the Year

M’colleague Jon did a review of the year over at his blog, so I thought I’d follow suit.

That was a busy year. A very, very, busy year.

At Cubicle 7, I added line management of The One Ring to my portfolio. Releases in that line were lighter than we hoped, but we got Tales from Wilderland and the Laketown Screen out the door, and I wrote the double-headed epic of Heart of the Wild/Darkening of Mirkwood which will be out early next year, all going well. Two Doctor Who supplements came out in 2012, and I’ve another half-dozen in the pipeline. The Primeval rulebook came out, and has a devoted if modest fanbase. And the Laundry continued to hum along; the Mythos Dossiers supplement is one I’m particularly proud of.

For Pelgrane, I worked on the Zalozhniy Quartet, and Cthulhu Apocalypse – Slaves of the Mother. The reader may judge how effectively I channeled Ken or Graham. Over at Mongoose, three of the ten segments of the Pirates of Drinax campaign came out in PDF, I worked on a few minor bits and pieces for Paizo… oh, that little bit of SLA Industries freelancing I did also came out. Overall, though, staying on top of the four lines at Cubicle 7 is close to a full-time job.

May brought the Week of Gigs Unlooked-For, where three brand-new clients contacted me out of the blue (along with an email from Pelgrane). One of them has yet to pan out, but I took the other three. One of them was Cthulhu Apocalypse, one of them was a (now regrettably late) Bulldogs! campaign, and the third was some website content writing for Riverkey Creative. I can, it seems, still work in the real world when I have to, and the pay is good, but you can’t talk about Cthulhu when writing medical advice for a dental practise website.

Last year, my first novel Reality Optional was published by Ultraviolet Books. I wrote more short fiction this year – a Cthulhu story for a charity anthology, a short piece for The Lion and the Aardvark from Stoneskin Press, and a longer horror story for the Dark Harvest setting. My guide to Tolkien for kids also came out from Carlton Books; it’s a mass-market release, and I’ve found copies in book stores. That was a fantastic thrill.

I made to GenCon for the first time as a professional.

I helped run Dragonmeet.

I got nominated for a few awards, mostly for adventure design, and won an Ennie for best rules (for Lorefinder).

Woot on all counts.

Oh, and raised four puppies.

There were mistakes to learn from, too. Rakehell remains unfinished – and if I had pushed harder on that, I could possibly have grabbed some of the wave of enthusiasm for FATE. One Laundry book still languishes in limbo because of a poor outline on my part. Dragon Warriors needs more time too, although there was some progress on that front. My communication took a hit too – apologises if you’re waiting on a email from me!

The teams at C7 & Pelgrane have been wonderful to work with – thanks especially to CEODMT, Jon, Paul, Stuart, Walt, Andy, otherGareth, Simon, Beth, Graham, and the increasingly ampersanded Kenandrobin. Here at Milkyfish, though, my chief collaborator remain my beloved deli. Preparations for our planned release dominated a large chunk of this year, but we made it this far and the finish line/starting point/life-shattering twingeddon is in sight.

But hey – if I can get all that done in 2012, how hard can twins be?

Don’t answer that. I cherish my illusions.

Happy Christmas, good gaming and here’s to next year.

 

On Being Interviewed

My main job, right now, is line managing Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and SpacePrimeval and The Laundry for Cubicle 7. The new, Matt Smithier-edition of DWAITAS is out soon (well, it’s out now in PDF), so I made a tour of the podcasts (Dirty Who-ers and Jennisodes).

Being interviewed is wonderfully fun, and it’s something I must do more often, assuming I remember to stop talking with my hands. That, or only do video podcasts with puppets. (Actually, there’s a video interview between myself and Jon Hodgson about Tales from Wilderland lurking out there in the wilds of the internet, but that won’t go live until the book hits the shelves. Also, it has no puppets.)

Listening to interviews afterwards makes me cringe, but that’s the Cork accent, like.

There’s a brief Rakehell mention around 41.30 in the Jennisodes podcast, which serves as a public guilt engine for me to get the damnable thing done. Things are progressing in stolen moments between C7, other freelancing and writing. Before the turning of the year, I hope.

Thief’s Luck – some system noodling

I’ve always wanted to do a Thief-style game, and a potential mechanic for it popped into my head while playing Mansions of Madness.

It’s based around a standard deck of playing cards. The four suits correspond to situations: Hearts are emotional/social, Clubs are violence/force, Spades are the environment, and Diamonds are intellect/puzzles. A character has four stats, ranging from 3 to 7, and a number of skills -things like Lockpicking, Archery, Hiding… or whatever the player comes up with (player-defined skills).

Here’s the gimmick: when you try to do something, the GM sets a difficulty number to beat. Say you’re trying to pick a lock – that’s a Spades challenge. Your running total starts equal to your matching stat. Each round, you flip the top card of the deck. If it’s a Spade, you add its value to your total.

Depending on the circumstances, the GM may nominate one, two or even three of the other suits as hazards*. If the card matches one of those suits, you’re hindered by some new problem, and the card’s value is subtracted from your total**. For example, flip a Club (violence), and a guard comes around the corner. Flip a Heart (emotion), and you might suddenly doubt your skills, or be distracted by greedily looting a nearby jewelled candlestick. Flip a Diamond, and you discover the lock’s trapped. If your total drops to 0 or less, you fail the challenge and bad stuff happens***.

If you’ve got a skill that fits the current challenge, then you can use it to add non-matching cards to your total, but doing so spends a point from the appropriate stat. Say you’re in the middle of a sword fight (so you need Clubs), and you flip a big Heart. Normally, that would be deducted from your running total – maybe your foe goes into a battle frenzy, maybe you panic, maybe you can’t bring yourself to murder someone, maybe you recognise your lover behind your foe’s mask – but if you’ve got the Swordfighting skill, you can reduce your Hearts skill by 1 to add that Heart to your total.

The nice thing about the mechanic is that it throws in lots of complications and unexpected twists. You don’t just miss an attack if you don’t draw a Club – a flock of startled pigeons flies in front of you, you sudden realise that your target’s a member of a rival crime family and you’ll be targeted for retribution if you kill him, he spots your sniper’s nest in the cathedral tower and ducks into cover.

It feels intuitively like a nice little system, assuming I can get the numbers right. I’m not normally a fan of playing cards as a mechanic, but it suits this setup. Your thoughts?

*: Flipped cards in a suit that’s neither hazardous nor beneficial still do something, I’m just not sure what. Probably hang around as a complication that doesn’t currently impede your task.

**: What about Ace/Jack/Queen/King? I’m tempted to tie them to factions and groups within the game. So, drawing a Jack means the Thieves’ Guild are involved. An Ace represents the city watch, and it’s high or low depending on whether or not they’re on alert or not. Queen and King…not sure yet.

***: Drawing from Hamlet’s Hit Points, I’m thinking of giving a bonus card to a character who loses a contest that can be used in the next struggle.

The Reality of Reality Optional

Writing fiction is exactly like running a game for the worst bunch of players imaginable.

Not only do you have to come up with the plot and the setting and so forth, but you’ve also got to motivate the characters. Without the GM prodding them to get up and do something, they just lie there, a panoply of apathy. On the rare occasions when the characters do act of their own accord, they run off in unexpected directions instead of following the plot you’d planned for them.

That’s why writing fiction was such a hurdle for me. To borrow from Woody Allen (edit: who borrowed from Groucho Marx, known Commie Mutant Traitor), I didn’t want to play any game that would have me as a player.

When Allen Varney approached me about writing a PARANOIA novel, I accepted in the hope that taking on a deadline would stimulate my guilt gland -

(You don’t have a guilt gland? I do. It’s hyperactive. I take medication for it.)

- and force me to write fiction.

The plan worked… eventually. The outline took longer to write than the book did. Writing a detailed outline for an rpg adventure is anathema – a good adventure leaves the major decisions up to the players, so at most you can have an outline full of conditionals, counterfactuals and loops (if the players choose x, then y. If they’ve already done y, then you can salvage the situation with z.)  In the past, I approached fiction in the same way, which doesn’t work.

So, this time, an outline was necessary.

(The passive voice is much safer.)

The first outline let to the second outline led to the third outline led to an endless death march. Allen & I would send each other mails starting off “I’ve got the homicidal thoughts under control now, so…” The book wandered in the desert for rather more than 40 nights.

My legal team & I are pleased to report that the endless death march did, in fact, pay off in the end and therefore there’s no need to smother anyone with a giant pile of old outlines. Once the final outline came together, the book flowed like The Computer’s own Bouncy Bubble Beverage. It was fun to write. That’s fun in a genuine way, not in an Alpha Complex reactor-shielding-is-fun way.

Some writers can write without an outline (Stephen King’s the best known example.) The big lesson from writing Reality Optional is that I’m not one of them. I need a map to keep me on course. That’s a very valuable insight to take away from the whole experience, and one that I’m going to build on this year.

The map’s not the territory, but it’s the first step to conquering it.

 

 

Rakehell Progress

While the playtest draft of the Rakehell rules isn’t ready yet, I’ve started my own test campaign with my usual playtest group, hardened on the battlefields of The Laundry, Mongoose Traveller and many other playtests. So far, they’ve fought vampires in burning ships on the Thames, ruined any number of lives, and participated in an elaborate kidnapping scheme at Vauxhall Gardens. The campaign’s highlighted what works about the current rules (most of the Aspect/Compel/Infernal Power triangle), what’s on the right track but needs work (the skill list) and what needs a lot of development (I need to delve deeper into research, and boil maps like Horwood’s plan or Carey’s survey down to their game-relevent pieces.

The work continues.

In other news, the Gaelcon scenario blurb is up. It’ll be available for download here after the convention – once I actually write the damn’d thing, of course…

Kickstarter and Character Creation

Money is like emotional barium – it can show what people are actually interested in and how they respond, which is why I’ve been watching some of the recent Kickstarters with interest. I’ve a personal stake in Graham Walmsley’s Stealing Cthulhu, I’m interested in John Snead’s Eldritch Skies, and of course there’s the astounding success of Daniel Solis’ Do. (There’s an interesting round-up at Purple Pawn).

There are similarities between kickstarting and rolling up characters for a new game. Four lessons I’d draw from watching kickstarter

  • Buy-In: I keep banging this drum over and over, but the single most important thing in any game is player enthusiasm. System, GMing talent, plot, everything flows from buy-in. Do‘s got 400+ evangelists who will make that game even more popular. Two enthusiastic players can drive a whole campaign.
  • Ownership: Players like to have a stake in the game beyond their character sheet. Characters should have connections to the setting; kickstarter supports buy up to rewards that let them have input. The whole gaming patronage model is based around letting the supporters say what they want and using that to guide development.
  • Novel Constraints: Kickstarters that work on a ‘pay anything you want’ basis don’t work. If you don’t give players targets to aim for, most will default to a minimum effort. Players need constraints to work with, especially interesting ones. A game where you can create anything you want leads to characters that are simultaneously ‘wacky’ and dull as hell. The game needs to stake out an interesting playfield for the players to inhabit. 
  • Community: Enthusiasm is infectious. Kickstarters are public events; people can see the enthusiasm and the groundswell of support and want to get involved. Character creation should be primarily done as a group, so that the players push each other. I suspect private patronage projects get considerably less cash.

Rakehell: The Chimneys of Whiteham

As promised, here’s the Warpcon scenario for Rakehell, The Chimneys of Whiteham (3.4M pdf), breaking new ground in the genre of occult Georgian chimney-sweeping horror. Download, read, play, give feedback!

The previous scenario, The Highwayman’s Lament (2.4M pdf) has also been tweaked slightly. If you haven’t seen it already, please take a look. Both scenarios include five pregenerated player characters and a brief synopsis of the FATE rules. Having a copy of Spirit of the Century to hand might be helpful, but is not strictly required.

There’ll be another Rakehell game this year, probably at Gaelcon. After that, we’ll push towards actually producing a rulebook. These free downloads are explorations of the Rakehell concept – The Highwayman’s Lament was the proof of concept, and The Chimneys of Whiteham tried something other than highwaymen and hellfire. The third scenario will focus on building campaigns and episodic play, as opposed to the occult blood opera of the two previous games.

(The blood opera has been tremendous fun, though. Every Rakehell game so far has involved murder, passionate arguments, stabbings, damnation and emotional compels by the dozen.)

We’ve also overhauled the look of the site, adding shiny new widgets that will make future updates smoother and (hopefully) more frequent.

A Serpent King & A Milky Fish

As was announced last week, I’ve joined Serpent King Games, a new company set up to keep the classic Dragon Warriors in print. There’ll be another annoucement along related lines in the next few weeks, and I’m also regularly freelancing for Pelgrane, Mongoose, Cubicle 7 and other companies. Most of my time is taken up with gaming material for other companies. That doesn’t mean Milkyfish is going anywhere, though – we’re keeping Milkyfish as a separate imprint for projects by Edel & Gar. The lack of significant progress on Rakehell and Anomaly One is unfortunately due to time constraints on both of us. Edel’s in the middle of her college course, and I’ve been freelancing to pay the bills as well as working on some fiction. We’re both fighting for time, but the ‘fish is dear to both of us. It may be seem to be a poor neglected fish, but it will see its day.

Rakehell got another outing at Warpcon – the scenario this time was an experiment in pushing the boundaries of the concept, to see if the game could support something other than highwaymen and running around with pistols. The player characters in the Warpcon scenario, The Chimneys of Whiteham, were a bunch of orphaned chimneysweeps aged between 8 and 15, with not a single flintlock among them. The game worked very well, and got some excellent feedback from players (check out the Adventuring Party podcast, for example – the Rakehell discussion kicks off around the 28:55 mark).

The Whiteham scenario will be made available for download soon.