Some Thoughts on Disconnection and Narrative in Marvel Heroic

I’ve been running a superhero campaign for a few years now, and tonight we hit ninety-seven sessions. In contrast to our usual approach, this one was dice heavy – the heroes raided the compound of an demonic ninja cult, fighting lots of guys in black outfits along with mystically endowed sumo-wrestlers, shadow-warriors, claw-wielding pretty-boys, and evil spirits possessing the body of a stone-and-iron golem.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the system after sessions like this. We started the campaign using Mutants and Masterminds, back when the third edition was released. We shifted over to the Marvel Heroic RPG about nine months back, largely because it added a more dynamic element for folks who didn’t want to build their powers around hitting things, and it’s been…

Well.

It’s been great, and it’s been slightly nightmarish in equal measure.

The Marvel RPG has a lot of moving parts, compared to the Mutants and Masterminds system. It handles comic-style action pretty well, when everything’s working correctly, but getting it working correctly is an uphill battle. Partially this is a flaw with the layout of the book – information is spread across multiple sections and comparatively simple things like “how does the villain escape spider-man’s webs” are half-hidden in sections that don’t make instinctive sense to you’re scanning for a rule on the hop.

For instance, we’ve been using the rules for about nine months now, playing weekly, and I spent last week compiling a four thousand word document on all the things we’ve been getting wrong that have a major impact on how the game works. It becomes problematic to change things, now, because habits have become burned in and need to be relearned.

The other place the moving parts have the potential to get frustrating is in the shared understanding of a character’s powers, personality, and flaws. What’s possible and what’s impossible is largely a matter of everyone agreeing that, say,  Spiderman can do X with his spider-sense, but he can’t do Y. Earning XP is based on mimicking Spiderman’s core traits, following the kinds of sub-plots that fill your average Spiderman storyline.

Which works great, if everyone is familiar with the character and the world.

It’s less great in a game world built from scratch, when figuring out what’s “normal” is a process of negotiation until everyone involved is on the same page. There’s a lot of very straight-forward powers – Super-Strength, for example – but start reading comics and you’ll quickly find a whole bunch of power sets where what’s possible and what’s not is basically at the mercy of the narrator.

For example, Stan Lee thought it was perfectly reasonable for The Human Torch to create Fire Sonar in some of the early Fantastic Four comics. Also, creating a fire-radio to broadcast messages. Basically, if a solution was needed, make it out of fire and you’re done.

Try doing that with a similar character in a superhero RPG – particularly one that’s not designed to replicate the goofier aspects of early comics books – and there’s going to be a moment of disconnect between the way you see your powers working, and the way everyone else does.

Disconnection is the bane of your existence when running game. Disconnection is where people start feeling cheated, because their understanding of the world doesn’t mesh with what’s actually happened. Disconnection is where people find themselves frustrated, because players find themselves in a narratively weaker position than GMs when it comes to figuring out how the game world works.

Disconnection, in essence, becomes the reason games that rely heavily on “shared story” mechanics are much, much harder work than things like D&D (particularly the third edition, which went out of its way to try and empower players and eliminate hand-waved narrative reasons for things).

Marvel relies heavily on shared-story mechanics. The complexity of the moving parts also means that I’ve ended up holding far too much control over the way powers are represented on character sheets.

The sessions of the Marvel RPG I’ve enjoyed the most have been the ones with the least disconnection. Tonight…well, I don’t think it was one of those, both because I’d shifted the rules on people in an effort to get them right, and because we exposed some instances where the way I saw someone’s power working probably didn’t mesh with the players understanding of it.

When I disappear…

I was going to start this post with something completely different, but then the latest issue of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet arrived on my e-reader, and the opening paragraph of Alyc HelmsThe Blood Carousel is too good to not share it:

They say any child brave enough to ride the carousel can win her parents back from death, but every child must bring her own mount to pay the ticketman. Unicorns would please him best, but to catch one you need innocence, and innocence cannot find the carousel.

Glorious, glorious story full of foxes and magic and not-quite-childhood bullies who live next door. I could think of a good half-dozen friends, who would probably love it, and it makes me glad I finally got around to resubscribing after losing track of when my subscription lapsed a few years back. Worth seeking out if you’re a fan of folklore-influenced fantasy.

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So…yes. When I disappear, mysteriously and on short notice, send people to my house and look under the avalanche of unread books. There’s pretty good odds that’s what has done me in.

When I moved in to my apartment fourteen months ago, I knew there wasn’t enough room for the books. I’ve spent the last year aggressively culling, sending books to good homes, and its still barely made a dent. There remains an awful lot of books left in teetering piles, and boxes shoved under beds and stacked in quiet corners.

Some books, quite honestly, are in danger of toppling through windows one day. Come summer, when i open windows, I’m going to find copies of The Changeling and Moorcock’s Wizardry  and Wild Romance embedded in the hood of a neighbours car after they made a desperate escape attempt.

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Day six. No hot water. Waiting for parts to come in, which will take twenty-four hours, which were ordered thirty-six hours ago. Properly grumpy now, since tomorrow is write-club day and I’ve been rearranging things at work, on the off-chance they actually called and I could have hot water again.

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Today I learned that Bubble Soccer is a Thing – players take to the field wearing giant inflatable bubbles, kick at a tiny football, and generally bounce off each other like they’re playing an absurd computer game. It’s hard to argue with people who have figured out that soccer would be better if the players bounced when they fell.

Facebook also brought along a link to an oddly poetic article about What Snails Think About When Having Sex, via my friend Chris Lynch. It’s hard to deny the power of its opening:

It starts with a light, soft touch, one tentacle gently reaching out, hesitant, hopeful, hanging lightly in the air. There’s a pause. Skin touches skin. One softly strokes the other and slides closer, and then, carefully, they wrap themselves together, stroking, probing, entwining. They glisten as they move, and because they are snails, everything happens very slowly.

Which is kinda glorious, really.

State of Play

I’m meant to off at a friend’s place tonight, enjoying the double-barrelled awfulness that is Avengers Grimm. Instead I’m here, in my apartment, trying to sort out a story for a deadline that crept up on me, being slightly grumpy ‘bout the fact I still don’t have hot water.

I’ve been thinking ‘bout blogs, lately, and how they have changed in the last ten years, ever since we started sharing things on Facebook and Twitter.

Mostly, I’ve been thinking ‘bout the those changes jibe with the blogs I tend to follow, versus the kinds of posts that I actually sit down and write. And I’ve been thinking about the fact that I sound angry, these days, whenever I sit down to write a post, especially compared to my posts from 2011 when I was, in fact, a seething ball of rage.

And after pondering this, for the last few days, I’ve come to a conclusion: I think I’d like to stop now, please.

Not blogging – I always kinda liked blogging – but certainly the concerted effort to blog in a way that preferences Twitter and Facebook. The posts, specifically, about some aspect of writing or publishing, the posts with the titles designed to hook readers, the posts – let’s be honest – designed to be shared around.

And lets be honest: that stuff works, if your goal is attracting people – folks find something smart or funny and they immediately share it around. It’s the default state of blogging in our feed-driven universe, and still the default approach I’d share with writers if they asked about platform at work. I’ve done a bit of that sort of thing, over the past few years, and the results are nothing to sneeze at.

But the blogs I miss – the blogs I still love reading, when I can find them – are the types of blogs that work like public diaries. Online spaces where the owners come to think, talk, and share, instead of showing up with a lecture and subheadings. Blogs that reward sticking with them, over time, rather than the one-off engagement.

Since there are a few folks who show up here for posts like Your Stories are Not Sacred God Poop and Things I Would Do If I Were Planning To Be an Indie Publisher, I figured it’s only fair to give you a heads up: I’m not giving them up for good, but I’m going to spend twelve months journaling, rather than blogging, which means the signal-to-noise may not be what you’d hoped.

If you’re in the need for writing advice, there’s plenty of good sources out there. If you’re looking to get in on the ground floor of something exciting, try Asking Doctor Kim. If you’re really missing my particular brand of blathering, try asking me something in the comments of a post – there’s pretty good odds I’ll answer, one way or another.

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Actually, speaking of writing advice: last week I got the chance to chair a Q&A session with Kevin Anderson and Rebecca Moesta, who are absolutely brilliant folks to talk to on questions of writing and publishing. I’d seen them present on a previous trip to Brisbane, when they did a seminar on Things I Wish Some Pro Had Told Me When I Was Starting Out, and it was so damned good that I leapt at the chance to MC when QWC offered me the gig.

They’re publishers, these days, in addition to the terrifying number of books they write, and they’ve got a pretty awesome line of writing advice that covers some pretty interesting territory. I recommend checking out Dave Farland’s Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing, The Synopsis Treasury, and Million Dollar Professionalism , if you get the chance.

The Last Great House of Isla Tortuga at Far-Fetched Fables

Occasionally you check the internet and remember things you’ve forgotten about.

Case in point: The June 14 edition of the Far-Fetched Fables podcast featured Matthew Fredrickson doing a reading of one of my first short stories, The Last Great House of Isla Tortoga, which first appeared in Jack Dann’s most excellent 2008 anthology, Dreaming Again, which was my second-ever short-story sale and the first I ever made in SF.

So I’m a bit late to the party on this one, for various reasons, but I recommend going and taking a look. Not just ’cause Matthew does an excellent job on my bit, but because there’s a similarly excellent reading of Donald V. S. Duncan’s The Green Square.

It’s nice, listening to other people read to you, sometimes. A bit weird when it’s your own words, and they don’t sound the way they do in your head, but that’s what comes of letting stories out into the world. Other people read them and make them their own.

If you’d prefer to read the story, rather than have it read to you, I put a slightly revised version up on the website a few years back and kinda, sorta forget to let people know it was there. So I’ll do that now, and resist the urge to ramble about the project I had in mind when I first put it up.

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I do not have hot water at the moment.

The whole system went kaput on Friday evening, when I got home from work, and it took me four days to organise a repair guy. Said repair guy showed up today, tested a bunch of stuff with parts from one of my neighbours hot water systems, then announced he didn’t have the parts to fix the problem.

It’s a bit frustrating. Hot Water’s one of those things you take for granted, when you live alone. Turn on the tap, out it comes, nothing you need to worry ’bout. It’s not like someone else is going to use it all up, after all, when you’re the only one in the household.

I mostly nip off to shower at other people’s houses. It’s awkward, but they have better water pressure than I do, so it mostly works out in the long run.

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Since I was late talking about Far Fetched Tales, I’ll get ahead on this: the last part of the Flotsam trilogy, Crusade, comes out next month. This finishes off Keith Murphy’s story for a stretch, but there will be a print omnibus edition of all three stories coming later this year and I’ve been talking to Jenn at Apocalypse Ink about some extra content they’re looking at putting in.

I’m looking forward to the omnibus, now.

Not that I wasn’t, before, but it’s always more fun doing new (well, newish) things, when the opportunity presents itself. It becomes a creative thing you can play with, a bit, rather than a cool bonus on top of the creative things that have already been done.

Bruce Sterling (and Others) on the State of Contemporary Science Fiction

With a hat-tip to Jonathan Strahan,who shared this link on Facebook, the Nerds of a Feather blog series where they’re interviewing cyberpunk authors about the current state of SF is awesome, particularly the section where the interview Bruce Sterling:

It’s true that the mid list has dwindled and more money and attention goes to fewer science-fiction creatives, but that’s also true of movies, nonfiction books, acting, pop music, all kinds of pursuits. Even heads of corporations have a one percent of ultra-wealthy moguls towering over them. I dunno why, but it’s clearly something broad and systemic, it’s not about some personal injustice done to some particular writer somewhere.

I would also argue that popular writing kinda needs a lot of dross available. Popular writing needs room for badness. You don’t get great writing without a lot of just, writing. When I look at a bookstore rack and it’s all junk I feel a sense of relief: it’s like the swimming pool still has water in it.

BLOGTABLE V: Cyberpunks on the State of Science Fiction, Then and Now (Part 2)

Go take a look, if you’re so inclined. It’s interesting reading.

Read This: Riding the White Bull, Caitlin Kiernan

If you’re a writer and you’ve never read Caitlin Kiernan’s work, you should probably rectify that at some point. She’s an extraordinary writer who basically looks at all the things we think of as rules, throws them out, and creates deliciously dark and beautiful fiction. Easily one of my three favourite writers active in the world today, and an author whose books I think up without question every time there’s a new release.

And if you haven’t read Kiernan before, I strongly recommend head over to Clarkesworld this month, as they’ve just reprinted one of the best of Kiernan’s stories, Riding the White Bull, in which she moves away from her usual brand of Lovecraft-tinged darkness and toward…well, go see for yourself.