Friends of mine run a monthly Artistic Challenge Throwdown on facebook. While it’s primarily visual artist and craft, I sometimes get a short story in for it. This month’s submission is below the cut.
I think it’s been around a month since we stared at an ultrasound screen and didn’t see a heartbeat. I’m not sure. Time’s been pretty irrelevantly lately, with days blurring into each other, and sleep coming like a black wave because you don’t want to feel any more.
He was less than eight weeks old, but we’re doing this through IVF (keep the laptop off your testicles, guys, I mean it), so we’d been fighting and hoping for a year, and we had a few weeks of joy before it was snuffed out. deli blogged about it weeks ago, but this is the first time I’ve felt the impetus to do so.
The world feels colder now. There are more things with sharp edges. More sights that make me wince. Other people’s happiness is ringed with knives, especially if it’s connected to kids. I want to scream at them, demand that they acknowledge how lucky they are, how absurdly random their good fortune is, demand that they explain why. There are no words.
I won’t say that I’d made any changes in my life because of the pregnancy, but I’d gotten myself into a mental space where I was ready to make those changes. No-one’s ever ready to be a father, I think – not that I have the slightest clue what “father” means – but I was willing to jump in and do my best. I wanted it.
We’ll try again. We’ve got four more frozen embryos. If they don’t work, then we’re still young enough that another round of IVF would still have moderately good chances, as these things go. It still could happen naturally. And if it doesn’t, we’ll adjust to that too.
Even if it does happen again, we won’t forget what we had, for a brief few weeks in March this year.
There’s a general election on Friday. It’s going to be an earth-shaking, transformative election, unprecedented in the history of the Irish state. This time, we’re going to vote for the other lot, not the usual lot. In fact, the usual lot are pretty screwed, because they broke the country. That’s not broke as in out of money (they did that to us too), but broke as in ‘does not work any more, is kaput, reinstall constitution from CD.’ In effect, the election determines who gets to rubber-stamp the economic policies dictated to us by Europe. There was this whole bank guarantee thing that went like this.
BANKERS: Round of wholly uncontroversial golf? Not that we’re having sneaky meetings behind anyone’s backs or anything.
GOVERNMENT: Sure! Shall we take your jet, or will I follow you in the government jet? Because we’re rich and nothing can ever go wrong again.
A year ago, more or less, I got an out-of-the-blue phone call from Mongoose, informing me that my contract was being terminated. I was Mongoose’s longest-serving staff writer by far, having started way back in May of 2003. That equates to roughly five million words, by the way, the vast majority of which were delivered on deadline.
The termination came with a month’s notice and a thank-you, nothing more. Such is the lot of the freelancer.
2010 was a chaotic year. I’m still dealing with the aftermath of my mother’s death. I got married. I ran a marathon. I tried to have a kid, found out I’m very close to infertile, started on a course of IVF. Meanwhile, of course, the world decides to go into meltdown, and I watched as the government pushes the country to the brink of bankruptcy and oblivion. 2010 was almost entirely interesting times.
So, what have I learned? The emphasis here, of course, is on the ‘I’; these lessons are painfully obvious to everyone, but they’re what I need to internalise and take from the past year.
Quality, not Quantity: I was successful at Mongoose primarily because I was able to produce lots of moderate-quality material on command on almost any topic. While that’s useful, I need to aim higher. I must break myself of the mindset that the first draft has to be the final draft. When you’re producing a book a month from scratch, there’s no time for planning, editing, rewriting or anything other than getting words out as quickly as possible, but other companies don’t work like that. Not everyone is Mongoose.
Constraint is Focus: I need to relearn the skill of juggling overlapping projects instead of working on them in series, and to do it all without the pressure of monthly deadlines. I’ve taken to using pomodoro for time management, with good results on days when I can get a good run-up at work. Other days, I’m so squeezed for time that I’m forced to focus. I need to make sure that every day is one or the other, and stop wasting time on the internet.
Fail Better: Remember those five million words? I own none of them. They’re all work for hire, and most of them are written for licensed games so they’re doubly not-mine. For someone who’s allegedly prolific, I’ve written only a tiny amount for myself, and an even smaller amount for public consumption. I’m afraid of failure and obscurity, so I don’t even try. To hell with that. Write, fail, write better.
The World is Strange: It was a year when ‘low orbit ion cannons’ were in newspaper headlines, when the roleplaying industry slouched and mutated, when people talked about twitter being an essential service even as the water pipes froze and burst. The older I get, the stranger the world seems, and that is terrifying and inspiring. The lesson to draw from it is that there may be people interested in my stranger ideas, and to break out of my comfort zone. Stop retreading what worked in 2005… or, more accurately, 1982.
Learn Until It Becomes Habit: I have said and blogged these things before. Every year is next year in Jerusalem, the year I finally write that novel, write that game, change the world. So be it – if I have to repeat these assertions and plans until they are become real, then I will. What I tell you three times is true, and what I tell myself a dozen times will eventually become true.
Love is Enough: And I stood on a beach in Kerry in impossible sunshine and I married her, and that is enough. Everything else builds on that.
It could be argued that going to Gaelcon in my current mental state was unwise – it’s hard to relax at a con when your embryos are being defrosted and transferred the next day. I also learned that I actively need to GM at least one game early in a con. Apparently, if I can’t get my godhead on early, I’m too nervous to be social. Instead of GMing, I made the mistake of larping for the whole of the first day. Eamon’s Yes, Grand Duke was fun, and amusingly paralleled a lot of the design of PARANOIA: High Programmers, but then I went straight into a six-hour JumpTech game.
Nick’s JumpTech series is more than two years old now. It’s an ongoing sci-fi epic. It’s primarily intrigue and trade, but there’ve been costumed aliens, nerf gun shootouts, space battles, props and all sorts of other ambitious elements. The six-hour Gaelcon game included a life pod prob that turned out to contain an NPC, a change of set half-way through, an awful lot of heavily armed nerf warriors, and free alien food. In the first half, I continued my ongoing efforts to bring the various factions together, encourage peace and stability, and supported the establishment of an interstellar police force.
In the second half, the fascist Sol Unity showed up. Suddenly, all the factions I’d been trying to unite found a common goal – going to war with Sol. As the ranking human diplomat, I had to choose between joining this alliance (and dragging the human colony into war) or opening up our own negotiations with the Sol Unity. I picked the dark side. It was an immensely frustrating decision, and not one I was in the right headspace to enjoy. Six hours of larping meant I was far too invested in the character and his failure.
I took the next morning off, then played a moderately entertaining Vampire session and a lot of boardgames, which was just what I needed. (Prosperity for Dominion is the craziest set ever).
Monday morning, I was unexpectedly dragooned into running Necessary Evils for Savage Worlds, as the GMs they’d lined up couldn’t make it to the con because of the Dublin city marathon. The game was ok; the characters were relatively rules-heavy, but one of the players knew the system and we bumbled through to an acceptable finale. The afternoon slot was a test drive for my own Rakehell setting, using a simple take on FATE as the engine. It went unexpectedly well; more on that once I get the scenario rewritten and up for download.
The d4 hotel continues to be an excellent venue. My only critiques of the con organisation are minor ones, and the event ran very smoothly. The con’s improved markedly over the last year or two – and having finally gotten to GM and throw off my funk, roll on next year.
Continuing on from the last post about my abortive Game Chef entry, the one major thematic element I didn’t manage to handle properly was Skin. When a character loses a scene, he may suffer an Injury – a negative trait that breaks the character’s Skin.
If your Skin’s broken, the Desert gets inside you. The scenes in the final two acts of the game should be based around the character’s injuries. If you lose your girlfriend in Act II, and that’s marked down as an Injury, then she’s bound to come back as a ghost or hallucination in Act IV. If you get bitten by a rattlesnake in one scene, then in the Desert you run out of anti-venom.
Setting: As the parameters of the game are defined in the opening scenes, the setting has to remain nebulous. The Desert’s assumed to be somewhere in the American southwest, but not quite in our reality. Lots of low-key surrealism; a Moorcock heist movie.
(If I go with Ye Traditional Atomic Wasteland for the Desert, then the meaning of Skin may change. In this variant, character start with some form of protection against the hazards of the desert, but can lose this protection over the course of play.)
Future Development: The first thing that needs to be done is number-crunching and playtesting. The game lives and dies by the Edge economy, so the cost of winning has to be correctly balanced. The players should have to think seriously about whether or not they want to win the scene, but they should win enough that the game doesn’t become a completely oppressive beatdown.
I never managed to finish my Hamlet’s Hit Points inspired entry in time for Game Chef this year, but late’s better than never.
This game is inspired by Robin Laws’ Hamlet’s Hit Points. If you haven’t read it, you should – it’s about beat analysis with special reference to roleplaying games. The book traces the development of the plot and the associated emotional arc in three famous works – Hamlet, Casablanca and Dr No, and discusses how to identify and use beats in roleplaying games.
This is an attempt to explicitly use beats to create story.
Beats can be upbeats or downbeats. An upbeat is one where the characters win and the players feel good – they win a fight, accomplish a goal, convince someone to help them, learn something important, have a laugh, have sex, get cool stuff. Downbeats are defeats or threats; the characters lose a fight, get hurt, fail to do something, get into arguments, lose stuff and other bad things.
In this game, by default, almost all the beat are downbeats. The world hates your character and wants him to lose.
The annual GameChef contest has rolled around again. This year, the ingredients are CITY, EDGE, DESERT and SKIN. Normally, I’d leap at CITY, so I’m deliberately staying away from that – creativity through constraints and all that. I’m still fuzzy on what I’ll do with DESERT and SKIN (I’m considering a Moorcock-inspired surrealist fantasy involving a tear in the skin of reality in a desert, with lots of sitting around in tin shacks and truck stops on an infinite highway), but I want to make EDGE the core mechanic.
Enter Hamlet’s Hit Points, by Robin Laws. A while back, Robin did a beat analysis of Hamlet on his blog, tracing the emotional and procedural upbeats and downbeats of the story with special emphasis on its relevance to roleplaying games. The book discusses this technique and adds beat analyses of Casablanca and Dr. No. (It’s worth reading if you’ve an interest in narrative construction and writing. I got my money’s worth ten minutes in, at an observation about maintaining suspense in literary fiction which helped me crack an problem in a decidedly not-literary outline.)
Hamlet’s Hit Points has a whole list of beats – Commentary, Anticipation, Gratification, Pipe, Question, and most importantly Emotional and Procedural upbeats and downbeats. My initial idea for Gamechef is to create a system that uses beats. The basic idea – in a conflict, one side or the other has Edge. If you have Edge, you’re going to win. If you don’t have it, you’re going to lose.
The game’s called Beatdown. Getting it into a workable state in time for the GameChef deadline is unlikely (blame Halo: Reach), but I’ll kick it into shape regardless.
However, if you lose a conflict because of Edge, you get Edge in the next fight. The gimmick is that the PCs will have to suffer several defeats in a row to accumulate enough Edge to beat the big bad guy. Conflicts don’t have to be physical – you suffer a nasty emotional blow, and you get to kick ass next scene. If the mechanics properly balanced, you should get a nice emotional arc to the game.
When last we left our hero, he’d run a marathon. Other highlights since then:
- The wedding (HUGE SUCCESS)
- Honeymoon in Iceland (also fun; considerably less ice than expected though)
- Intracytoplasmic sperm injection, as we found out we were extremely unlikely to have kids using conventional methods. Now, when a man and a woman love each other very much, they go and talk to a nice Chinese laboratory technician who claims his name is Sean… (current status: there are eight viable embryos in a freezer)
In between those, and the dog walking/house renovation/rolling family nonsense/ongoing rpg campaigns/xbox360 quotidien existence, I’ve been cramming in as much freelancing as I can manage. The Laundry just came out in pdf (print should be out in the middle of next month), and the first two supplements (Black Bag Jobs, an adventure anthology, and a player’s guide) are close behind it in the production queue. My first adventure for D&D, the Goblin Hole, came out in July; I’ve got another four Pathfinder articles coming out from Paizo in the next few months. I’ve also got two ongoing gigs – I’m updating Secrets of the Ancients for Mongoose, and I’ll be doing a series of short supplements for Pelgrane’s lines over the year.
Any gaps in my schedule, I’m planning to fill with my own material, like the poor neglected Milkyfish projects, but as my freelancing is our major source of income right now, I’m concentrating on work-for-hire that pays off moderately quickly.
The last six months were all about treading water while we survived the wedding; now, we’re finally moving forward.