June 29, 2012

The Most Desirable Enchanted Item In the Entire Dying Earth Revivification Folio

If I could have one enchanted item from the Dying Earth Revivification Folio, I’d pass on the Laccodel’s Rune, the Live Boots, and even Orisant’s Impudent Monocle. Instead I’d ask my indentured sandestin to secure the following:

Motes of Exigent Social Rescue

What It Looks Like: a fine multicolored powder, in a container of your choice

What It Does: When blown into the face of another person, that person forgets an unsuccessful social interaction with you, provided that it that occurred no more than five minutes ago. The target’s basic attitude toward you reverts to what it was before the interaction. The rest of the target’s memories reform themselves to conform as much as possible to what really happened, minus your regrettable gaffe. Unless countered by other magical means, the target’s amnesia becomes permanent.

What It Costs: 1

June 28, 2012

Xenomorphic Bullet Points

By setting a new pattern with each film, Alien movies previous to Prometheus established a pattern: each presented an SF take on a separate, established genre.

Alien: slasher movie in space.

Aliens: war movie on an alien planet.

Alien3: prison movie on an alien planet.

Alien Resurrection: action/comic book movie in space.

One of the many odd choices about the new flick:

Prometheus: sci-fi movie on an alien planet.

June 26, 2012

5 Things I Learned About Jack White...

...from this installment of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast:

  1. If he really had to, he could still reupholster a chair.

  2. Deciding that he needed to learn to cut loose while on tour, he started antiquing.

  3. He owes his success to a fanatical interest in his field…

  4. …and an obsessive work ethic.

  5. The name of his former band The White Stripes is pronounced whitestripes, accent on the first syllable.


June 25, 2012

Super Caution

Earlier I explained why the first DramaSystem game, Hillfolk, lacks super-powers, instead building its geek cred around iron age trappings.

For our second in-house DramaSystem series, I figured it was okay to bust out some more overtly fantastical elements. The group chose to play cast members in a traveling carnival during the Dustbowl era, and agreed that it would be okay to have supernatural powers of some sort.

Although they’re clearly happy to enjoy fantastical elements as a prospect, none of the players has seized on the narrative power the system grants them to give themselves the permissible super-abilities. Jo-Jo the Cat Faced boy has demonstrated himself to be an agile escape artist, but not this has not been described as in any way superhuman. If the carnival impresario, magician, aerialist or snake charmer have incredible powers up their sleeves, they have yet to reveal them.

As GM, I’ve introduced elements making it clear that they operate in a supernaturally heightened 1930s. They’ve learned that the carnival’s other aerialist can unfurl a prehensile tongue to drain young victims of blood. A young girl who can move objects with her mind just showed up seeking refuge. And manipulating events from a remove is a dapper man from the impresario’s past who might just be the devil.

Over the course of the series, we’ve discovered that he wants them to collect and protect others with extraordinary abilities, maneuvering Barboa the snake handler into a pact to this effect. The interest of the mysterious Mr. Ordogh may cement players’ reluctance to give their characters super-powers. But long before his scheme revealed itself, the dynamic was already manifest.

Given the chance to be super, the group decided they were just fine being people.

June 22, 2012

The League of Drowned Ghosts

Tempest Rising, the latest installment of Paizo’s Skull & Shackles adventure path is now available. Among all manner of piratical Pathfindery goodness within its salt-scorched pages you will find “The League of Drowned Ghosts”, the next chapter of my serialized novella The Treasure of Far Thallai.

Follow Challys Argent and her complement of sinister sword-enslaved sidekicks as she follows a cyclopean confession to the titular isle of Drowningtide. There they find that the hospitality of unfortunates drowned at sea can be too pressing to refuse...

June 20, 2012

Video Interview with the Secret DM

In this Gamerati interview, I talk Hillfolk, Stone Skin Press, Dreamhounds of Paris, Hamlet’s Hit Points, and our plan to apprehend Flattop, with David Melmo, the Secret DM.  Check out his lovely intro, subscribe to Ed Healy’s Gamerati YouTube channel, or dive in directly below.

June 19, 2012

New Hero Brief: Story Requirements

With Stone Skin Press’ first books headed for pre-release roll-out, I thought you might enjoy a look inside the process, at the brief I sent out when inviting contributors to take part in The New Hero (and its later follow-up, The New Hero Volume 2). I’ll be breaking these up into blog-sized bites over the next few days. Please note that this is not a call for contributions; the books are finished and ready for the printer, the invited authors having delivered some exciting work featuring their new and newish iconic characters.

The previous installment defined the unifying structure the books revolve around. Here’s what I asked contributors to do with the theme when writing their stories.

Your story must show us everything about the hero and his environment that we need to know to understand the action. If you can imply that we’re following one of the hero’s many similar adventures, so much the better. Check out a Sherlock Holmes or Conan story to see how the classic authors of iconic serial fiction efficiently introduced their heroes and then got on with the story at hand.

Possible genres include: epic fantasy, sword and sorcery, urban fantasy, space opera, mystery, occult investigation, hard-boiled action, super heroes, pulp, special forces, espionage, gothic intrigue, steampunk, cyberpunk, and historical derring-do. This is not an exhaustive list. Surprise me. Not fitting an immediately identifiable genre is cool, too.

Likewise, feel free to set your story in the past, present or future, in this world or on an imaginary one.

We’re looking for a mix of genres so the more distinctive your choice of genre, the easier time I’ll have deciding which of the two volumes it fits in. Pick the genre you most feel at home in or that best inspire you to create a new iconic hero.

We need female as well as male heroes.

Solo protagonists are easiest to introduce and follow, but other configurations are acceptable, so long as one of them is an iconic hero. You might have your iconic hero/sidekick combo, as per Holmes and Watson, or a duality of iconic heroes, like Mulder and Scully. A team of equally iconic heroes would be hard to pull off, given space constraints, but could work.

We seek self-contained adventures featuring already iconic heroes, not origin stories in which a character undergoes a dramatic arc to become an iconic hero at the end.

We’d be happy to see further adventures of heroes you’ve featured in previous published stories. provided that they meet the iconic criteria, or can be presented as iconic heroes for the length of your story. (You might for example write a standalone adventure of a character who remains unchanged throughout but undergoes a dramatic arc elsewhere in your work.) It goes without saying that you must own the underlying rights for any existing characters (or settings) you wish to feature.


What We’re Not Looking For

As noted above, ixnay on the origin stories.

Engage the premise head-on. We’re not looking for stories that subvert, invert, deconstruct, parody, ironically riff on, or otherwise take the mickey out of the concept of the iconic hero.

Humor is okay within the context of a heroic story but we’re not looking for pieces that are predominantly spoofy.

Please don’t propose new adventures of preexisting heroes created by other authors, even if you have secured the rights to them. We are likewise not looking for new adventures of public domain heroes. Nor are we seeking Solar Pons-styles pastiches in which the names and serial numbers have been filed off of classic iconic heroes.

We’re not looking to reprint previously published stories.

June 18, 2012

New Hero Brief: What Makes an Iconic Hero?

With Stone Skin Press’ first books headed for pre-release roll-out, I thought you might enjoy a look inside the process, at the brief I sent out when inviting contributors to take part in The New Hero (and its later follow-up, The New Hero Volume 2). I’ll be breaking these up into blog-sized bites over the next few days. Please note that this is not a call for contributions; the books are finished and ready for the printer, the invited authors having delivered some exciting work featuring their new and newish iconic characters.

Unlike other anthologies united by theme or genre, The New Hero books ask writers to present material from any genre using a common structure. Here is how I presented that to the authors. Long-time readers of this blog may recognize the key concepts and examples.

The New Hero is an anthology of original fiction featuring new iconic heroes, edited by Robin D. Laws and published by Pelgrane Press.

It will consist of 14 stories, each 4500-7500 words long.

Each story features an iconic hero of the author’s creation, in any genre. The hero is presented with a problem, faces various entertaining complications as he or she engages with the problem, and solves the problem, bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion. The reader is thus left hungering for more stories starring your newly introduced iconic character.

What Makes a Hero Iconic

While a dramatic hero follows a character arc in which he is changed by his experience of the world (examples: Orpheus, King Lear, Ben Braddock), an iconic hero undertakes tasks (often serially) and changes the world, restoring order to it, by remaining true to his essential self.

Prevailing creative writing wisdom favors the changeable dramatic character over his serially unchanging iconic counterpart, but examples of the latter remain enduring tentpoles of popular culture. It’s the clear, simple, elemental iconic heroes who keep getting reinvented every generation. Each such classic character spoke to the era of its invention, while also evoking an eternal quality granting it a continuing resonance. We are going to create a new set of heroes who speak to the contemporary world while evoking the inescapable power of the iconic model.

An iconic hero re-imposes order on the world by reasserting his essential selfhood. The nature of his radical individuality can be summed up with a statement of his iconic ethos. It is the ethos that grants higher meaning to the hero’s actions, and a clue to his creator’s intentions. An iconic hero’s ethos motivates and empowers him.

  • Sherlock Holmes solves mysteries using rigorous deductive logic.

  • Miss Marple solves mysteries with a sharp mind, hidden behind a deceptively doddering demeanor.

  • Conan uses his barbaric superiority to overturn the false order of corrupt civilization.

  • Carnacki the Ghost Finder conquers fear with scientific methodology and technology.

  • Dr. Gregory House caustically tramples social decencies to solve medical mysteries, temporarily assuaging his self-loathing.

  • Batman brings justice to cowardly and superstitious wrongdoers, doing for others what he could not do for his murdered parents.

  • Storm overcomes the enemies of human- and mutantkind by wielding nature’s untamed power.

  • James Bond dispatches Britain's enemies with cold suavity and violence.

  • Tarzan upholds the noble values of the jungle against the predatory outsiders who would despoil it.

  • Philip Marlowe goes down mean streets, without himself becoming mean.

An iconic ethos implies both action and motivation. Each adventure featuring the hero is a satisfyingly ritualistic recapitulation of the character’s core action. By engaging in this recapitulation the hero restores the sense of order which was disrupted by the problem presented at the narrative’s outset.

This anthology provides your chance to create your Bond, your Batman, your Philip Marlowe.

Next: What we wanted to see in submitted stories—and what we didn’t.

June 15, 2012

The Sleeper Gene

Remote controlled gene activation fuels a pharmaceutical conspiracy in my latest installment of StoryCraft, over at the Ancient Scroll.

June 13, 2012

The Dying Earth Revivification Folio Now Available For Pre-Order

In Jack Vance’s stories of the Dying Earth, the sun, and thus life itself, is universally thought to be mere moments from a sad, smoldering demise. Yet inexplicably it continues to shine, allowing the world's hyper-verbal denizens to go on swindling and pettifogging one another. This is faster and more fun than ever before with the Dying Earth Revivification Folio now available for pre-order from Pelgrane Press.

My brief with this book was to create what was in effect a new edition of the game, bringing it the improvements to the basic system we built into Skulduggery, the streamlined, generic game based on the original DERPG core rules. The goal however was not to render your purchase of the original game obsolete, but to serve as a booster kit for it. It is neither game nor supplement, then, but rather a gupplement.

Wait. That’s terrible. Forget I said that.

When you think about it, really what’s happening is that DERF is now the game, and has also retroactively turned DERPG into a supplement.

Wait, never mind that either. Semantics are the cutlass of the pettifogger.

We are sometimes told that DERPG is a buyer’s favorite game he can’t get his players to try. The Revivification Folio solves that problem for you by adopting the super-fast, card-based character generation system first presented in Skulduggery. Players can jump right in without undergoing the more traditionally detailed character creation process mooted in the original book. Within minutes they are decisively ensnared.

The quick and deadly combat system is now quicker and just as unforgiving.

Magic is simplified so that the spells you wield appear on cards. In true Vancian fashion, you play the card and have used up the spell. Enchanted items can be used multiple times but are likewise presented in easy-to-use card format.

The book comes with cards to generate your first six PCs, and with notes on replacing them when they succumb to the cruelties of a decadent world.

Also included are your first three scenarios: one in which our picaresque heroes find themselves unwillingly indentured to a hotelier-slash-arch-magician, another in which they serve as guardians to a tomb-raiding expedition, and another in which they finally secure sinecures as officials in a bucolic rural village. Nothing could possibly go wrong!

June 12, 2012

Why Hillfolk Lacks Magic, Laser-Wielding Dinosaurs

Some gamers interested in DramaSystem have expressed a preference for an intial setting even more deeply geeky than a reimagined early Iron Age. Though no two ask for the same alternate setting. This excerpt from the rule book explains the choice of introductory setting.

In many classic roleplaying games, the characters become vehicles for the exploration of deep, endlessly fascinating settings. DramaSystem aims for a different sort of pleasure, one in which you leave the game remembering its people—the people you collectively created—and the things they did. To bring this experience to the forefront, it lets the background recede into, well, the background.

Hillfolk’s iron age setting is designed to appeal to at least one spectrum of geek-culture tastes, what with its swords, archaic period, imagined history, and epic clash of empires.

However, it does quite intentionally set aside a central element of popular nerdly properties. It takes place in a world without fantastical powers, whether granted by magic, futuristic technology, super mutations, or their various equivalents through other genres.

Beneath their genre-specific skinning, all of these function the same way. They’re super powers. They add flash, glamor and unique, trademarked detail to procedural stories.

By omitting the super powers, Hillfolk helps you to move faster to the heart of DramaSystem, the creation of dramatic narratives. The first time you play it, the group will, instinctively and understandably, lean toward the procedural scenes that drive other roleplaying games. Over time, as the play style manifests, procedural scenes become less frequent. Eventually you’ll start skipping over them, agreeing that certain practical outcomes have already occurred, in order to get back to the character interplay.

Having habituated yourselves to the style, you can move on to as outlandishly geeky a setting as your heart desires. Whatever flavor of super powers you choose will by that point support the game's core dynamic, instead of keeping you from it.

June 11, 2012

Tomes Fantasy Improv Show Postponed

The fantasy/gaming-themed improv show I plugged last week has been indefinitely postponed. When organizers announce a new date I’ll let you know.

Make the Tabletop Forge Gang Think Up New Stretch Goals for their Kickstarter

When the intrepid adventuring party behind Tabletop Forge, the app that turns Google+ Hangouts into a gaming table, announced their Kickstarter on the weekend, I figured I’d wait until weekday prime time to give their campaign a shout-out. Now I am late to the party, as they blew through their funding goal at jaw-dropping speed. Now they’re near to their stretch goal. Since further development will make this promising tool for online play an indispensable one, I say let’s test their ingenuity and see what other key inducements they come up with when they the top off that, too.

See P. XX, June Edition

The latest edition of Pelgrane Press’ See P. XX now waves for your attention in modest yet dignified fashion. As always, it features an edition of my eponymous column, in this case devoted to the three ways in which we read RPG core books.

Alongside it in the grab bag of Pelgraney goodness: crowdfunding, Night’s Black Agents achievements and competition winners, playtest updates and opportunities, Owl Hoot Trail notes, and Simon Rogers’ latest progress report on the increasingly bustling world of Pelgrane. Check it out.

June 07, 2012

Improv Goes Fantasy – With a Hint of Hamlet’s Hit Points?

Toronto’s coolest comedy venue is without a doubt Comedy Bar, at Bloor near Ossington. Although my favorite of the various sketch and improv formats is Catch-23, a competition in which teams have to play exactly that number of minutes worth of scenes before judge and voting audience, I may shortly have to revise that opinion, out of raw self-interest. Comic Doug Sheppard and a marauding band of fellow improvisers are unveiling Tomes, in which the group improvises based on the back cover copy of a fantasy novel they have never read. Curiouser still, Doug, who one must assume has some d20s under his furniture somewhere, got in touch to tell me that he drew some inspiration from Hamlet's Hit Points. I’ll be checking out the epic first performance on June 20th at 8 PM and reporting back afterwards. Keep up with Tomes events by liking their Facebook page.

Update: This event has been indefinitely postponed. When I get word of a rescheduling, I’ll let you know.

June 06, 2012

Atomic Overmind Announces New Tales of the Yellow Sign Print Edition

You asked for it, you got it. New Tales of the Yellow Sign, my upcoming collection of short stories inspired by the classic weird tales of Robert W. Chambers, will be available not only in ebook format, but in a print edition from Atomic Overmind Press. I’m happy to be able to accommodate the reading and collecting habits of the bibliomanes among you, and proud to be part of a line including Kenneth Hite’s Tour de Lovecraft and Cthulhu 101. Adding to the bragging rights, New Tales represents Atomic Overminder Hal Mangold’s first foray into straight-up fiction.

The print edition is scheduled for a September 2012 release, but we’ll sneak some advance copies to Gen Con, allowing attendees there the first shot at forever blasting their fragile mental conditions.

Once we go from cover mock-up (seen here) to finished cover, I’ll get the wheels in motion on ebook distribution. This is my first adventure in that format, and I’ll keep you updated as the electronic version wends its way to market.

Here’s the announcement text, as also found on the Atomic Overmind site.

In the dying years of the 19th century, a book changed the world—or worlds. A slim, sinister text called The King in Yellow drove those who read it to madness. Despite suppression by anxious authorities, it spread through global culture, and history itself, like a virus. Now the contagion bears hideous fruit.

Disturbing, dissonant and riddled with negative capability.

- Simon Rogers, Pelgrane Press

New Tales of the Yellow Sign expands the classic horror mythos of weird tales pioneer and Lovecraft precursor Robert W. Chambers into new vistas of unease and imagination. Over the course of eight troubling stories, writer and visionary game designer Robin D. Laws lures you into diseased timelines, impossible pasts, and the all-too-terrifying present.

Poison and beauty lie before you, in any color you want.

Kenneth Hite, author, Tour de Lovecraft: The Tales

Sterilize your suicide chamber, harken to the remorseless clicking of your black box, and whistle for the monstrous creature that lives in your basement. The pallid mask awaits.

All of these New Tales of the Yellow Sign orbit lost Carcosa, black star points poked through the white scrim of consensus reality by the force of Chambers’ book. But each swings past on its own trajectory, a mix of styles and concerns in counterpoint to Chambers’ unified “Gallic studio atmosphere” of the Yellow Decade. Each story launches itself in fugue from one (or more) of Chambers’ originals, passages that Laws plays adagio or largo on different instruments, plays for modern dancers and not Victorian wallflowers.

– Kenneth Hite, from his Foreword

New Tales of the Yellow Sign is a 170-page trade paperback from Atomic Overmind Press, acclaimed publishers of Tour de Lovecraft: The Tales, and Cthulhu 101.It will release in September of 2012, with a preview release at the Gen Con Indy 2012.

The novels of author and game designer Robin D. Laws include Pierced Heart, The Rough and the Smooth, and The Worldwound Gambit. Robin created the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying rules system and such games as Feng Shui, The Dying Earth, The Esoterrorists and Ashen Stars.

Atomic Overmind Press is an Alexandria, Virginia-based publishing house, founded in 2008. The Overmind and his creative partners are dedicated to bringing the best in esoteric science-fiction, fantasy, horror, fringe culture, and hobby gaming to a global audience.

June 05, 2012

90% Vampires

As someone who has himself been guilty of diagramming out narrative structures, I recently had my attention directed to an infographic alleged to depict the thematic content of a particular book. On first glance, this looks cool, and not unlike the slow downward progress of a Hamlet’s Hit Points beat analysis map.

When you check out what it actually measures, the wonkiness surfaces. Welcome to the blissfully obtuse world of the Book Genome Project, which measures the quantity of certain tropes and motifs, which it seems to think are the same thing as themes. It bases itself on the already peculiar assumptions of the Music Genome Project, which powers the Pandora streaming service. The MGP thinks that people choose music based on abstract, objective criteria like “major key tonality” or a “dynamic male vocalist.” Actually we respond more according to cultural aspiration, identity formation, and the indefinable talent of people working within the styles we’re already drawn to. When Pandora works, it’s because of its user fine-tuning.

Gene-sequenced music seems downright on-point compared to judging a book by the quantity of attention given to a motif or trope in a work of literature. This leads to such hilarity as the following gem, from the Book Lamp FAQ. (BISAC is the standard subject header system, as seen on a book’s front matter page.)

A book with 90% Vampires is a very different book than one with 5% Vampires, but both would probably receive the same label in the BISAC classification. 

Clearly the above was typed by an android.

We as readers might respond to certain tropes and motifs, seeking some and staying clear of others. But they are externals, and tell us nothing about why one story using a motif becomes a staple of the canon and countless others vanish from the collective imagination.

Believe me, I didn't want to take the glasses off for this one. But if we’ve learned nothing else here today, vampires are not a theme!

June 04, 2012

With New Hero 2 Cover, Gene Ha Out-Awesomes Himself

For the fiction writer, the process of having one’s work illustrated serves up anxiety by the bucket load. You are not only at at a remove from the art direction process, but often out of the loop altogether. Instances of character images being shaped more by inattentive illustrators than the text abound in genre literature. And that’s for novels. The idea that you’d have significant input into a short story cover lies beyond the silver veil of authorial dreams.

That an artist would take it on himself to communicate with the writers of a short story collection, taking heed of their input and making adjustments accordingly—why, that’s got to be a crazy myth, on the order of the unicorn. That the artist would then labor to include every single lead character in a collection of fourteen—often with sidekick? Why, that’s a chocolate unicorn riding a platinum unicorn atop a prompt cable installer.

Unless we’re talking Gene Ha, in which case it is just Gene being Gene. Here’s his cover for Stone Skin Press’ The New Hero 2.

As part of our deal when I agreed to sign on as Stone Skin’s Creative Director, Simon Rogers required that I occasionally include my own stories in these anthologies, no matter how unCanadian that might make me feel. The yellow dude with the German shepherd is Longthought, my mutant hero of the semiotic apocalypse, from the story “Among the Montags.”

June 01, 2012

The Lion and the Aardvark cover reveal

As previously touted hereabouts, Pelgrane Press is launching a fiction imprint, Stone Skin Press, with yours truly serving as Creative Director.  The fourth book in our series of genre-busting anthologies will be The Lion and the Aardvark, a collection of modern fables from an impressive talent roster from writing scenes near and far.

Today we unveiled a cover mock-up to highlight the splendid illustration by Jim Zub, of Skullkickers and Udon fame. It brings a 1900s editorial cartoon style to the dueling laptops wielded by the opposed protagonists of Ekaterina Sedia’s title story.

I’m sure you’ll agree that Jim’s work more than meets the gold standard already set by Stone Skin cover artists, Gene Ha and Jason Morningstar.

We’re slating this for a Christmas release, so save space in your stockings.

The Ancient Scroll Presents Storycraft

Today The Ancient Scroll, a site specializing in RPG story ideas, launches the inaugural edition of StoryCraft, a column of scenario outlines written by well-known game designers. They’ve engaged me to write an installment every two weeks. Subscribe to their RSS feed, or keep an eye out for my links here on the blog or from whichever social media platform you use to track my doings.

The first installment, “By Fate Enslaved”, keys off an intriguing passage in Edward Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to present a tale of sudden slavery, a decadent imperial metropolis, and daring rescue. Check it out... in the original English, or in Polish translation.