PeterMBall

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

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The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).

MY CHECK-IN

What am I working on this week?

I’m doing rewrites of my thesis chapter ahead of my confirmation submission in 8 days, which looks like it’ll be taking up the bulk of my writing time this week.

What’s inspiring me this week? 

Mary Capallo’s Swallow, a history of people who swallow foreign objects and the doctor who pioneered their non-surgical removal. I had a lot of doubts about the book when I started it, but I kept hitting points where I was cringing as I read it and some of the lists of things people have swallowed is incredible reading. I ended up taking three pages of notes for things I either want to include in stories or just remember ’cause they were interesting.

What action do I need to take?

I’ve got a bunch of paperwork that I need to finish for the confirmation, which will disappear until the last minute if I don’t keep an eye on them.

One Year of Writing (And Procrastination) Data

I’m a big fan of gathering data about my processes and productivity, particular when it doesn’t require any particular effort on my part. That’s why I pay for a yearly RescueTime subscription, giving me a week-by-week (or mont-by-month) snapshot of how much of my computer time is actually spent working versus goofing off on various projects.

This year RescueTime rolled out a feature that gives me an entire year in review, breaking down my computer and phone usage across the entirety of 2017 based upon a number of categories.

I know that I logged 1,496 digital hours across 2017 (that’s out of a possible 8760 hours available in a year), which means I’m spending about 4 hours on average logged onto a computer or using my phone.

Of that 1,496 hours, 416 have been dubbed Productive, which is how RescueTime logs any computer or phone usage in which I’m working in Word or Scrivener. It’s not a purely accurate list, given that I also use that software for non-writing purposes, but I can get those breakdowns and pull them out if I want to get more specific. My goal for 2018 will be getting that up – from 1/4 of the hours spent at-the-computer being productive to 1/2 of my at-the-computer hours

I also logged 292 Distracting hours, which is generally a measure of how long I spend on social media or playing computer games. This number is much lower than normal, and mostly social media driven, as I acquired a playstation at the start of 2017 for the expressed purposes of removing Netflix and Computer Gaming from the machines where I do my work. This means that I’m still clocking up a bunch of screen hours that aren’t logged on RescueTime, but also means that they tend to be intentional rather than “oh, look, I logged on to my work computer and actually started watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine instead of working on a draft.”

Fun as these are, they’re just numbers – what I’m really looking at is the section of the report that breaks down my screen-hours by month. By and large I’m pretty consistent here, but there’s a definite pattern in my yearly report where March and June are low months – the report gives me a chance to go back and look at my bullet journal to figure out why (and, more importantly, whether I need to start incorporating something into my forward projections and adjust my work expectations accordingly).

15 Things Learned About Superhero RPGs After Running 150 Sessions Of My Campaign

So back in 2012 I wrote up a list of 13 things I’d learned running a Superhero RPG campaign for thirty sessions, and it quickly became one of the most read posts I’ve ever done.

Now, six years later, we’ve just played session #150 of the same campaign, which definitely makes this one of the longest RPG campaigns I’ve ever run. Over the last six years we’ve switched systems, going from 3rd Edition Mutants and Masterminds to Cortex’s Marvel Heroic RPG system, and accumulated three additional players (although session-by-session attendance varies).

In game, the duo of Shock & Awesome have grown to a full-fledged superhero team dubbed SMAX. The two original characters have gone on hiatus so the players can bring in new heroes, and the team now includes an alien circuit acrobat, a rogue winged monkey from the parasitic demi-plane known as Oz, and a Mexican speedster/shadow-sorcerer whose powers stem from a number of gods.

This post is a companion piece to my 2012 post, noting some of the ways my thinking about running superhero games have evolved or changed since the first write-up.

15 THINGS LEARNED ABOUT SUPERHERO RPGS AFTER RUNNING 150 SESSIONS OF MY CAMPAIGN

1) MOST SUPERHERO EXPERIENCE POINT SYSTEMS SCALE POORLY FOR LONG-TERM PLAY

We kicked off this campaign in session one with PL8 Mutants and Masterminds characters, placing the PCS on roughly the level of your average teen-hero comic book character. If we’d followed the original experience point rules laid out in third edition M&M for 150 sessions religiously, the PCS would now be PL 18 – roughly the equivalent of your big, world-shaking villains like Thanos or Apokolips in your average comic book universe.

The Marvel Heroic system we’re now using had its own problems if you use the Milestone XP system as written, with heroes scaling even faster if you devoted XP to purchasing power upgrades simply because the system was never meant for long-term play. It’s primary focus is getting Marvel characters moving in-and-out of teams, with every character resetting to default after an “event.” This doesn’t happen in a group where players are attached to their self-created characters, and particularly not at the pace Marvel assumes.

We used Milestones for about twenty sessions, after which one of the more mathematically inclined players had scaled his character up to a power-level equivalent of Thor through a few judicious choices. The upside of this was that the Marvel system handled that scaling well in terms of making everyone feel equal. The downside is that having a should-be-Cosmically-aware-on-Silver-Surfer-levels PC in a game that was focused on a much smaller scale wasn’t the best possible fit.

Here’s the thing, though: I doubt any XP system is going to scale well for superhero gaming. XP systems in RPG systems are usually focused on character-improvement, scaling up power levels over time and replicating the kind of learning-curve that’s often associated with the dramatic arc of fantasy characters where naive farm-boys evolve into warrior-kings and powerful sorcerers.

Superhero characters tend towards the iconic – they’re characters who, in the words of Robin Laws, “imposes order on the world by reasserting his essential selfhood.” We don’t watch superhero narratives to see how the character changes, but to see them apply their powers and their driving character conflict to the different conflicts. Changes to their powers tend to be gradual and narratively-driven (Spiderman and his villains getting slowly more powerful over the decades, as they master their abilities and one-off stunts become regular usage), or they tend to be an all-at-once shift of the status quo designed to prompt the question of “where to from here?” (Spiderman getting the venom suit, or becoming the owner of a multi-million dollar tech company with a series of advanced gadgets from his R&D).

This campaign has used a two different systems so far, and I’ve encountered a lot more in the past. Few of the XP systems I’ve come across ingrate the approaches of gaming and comics well, so we largely made the decision to get rid of them. Character change in the campaign is now either narratively driven (“It’d be interesting if Shock was no longer possessed by a ninja spirit”), or the result of logical progression (“you’ve been trying lots of thing X with your powers/skills; let’s give you an actual dice in it now”).

2) NPC VALUE IS DRIVEN BY REPETITION, ENGAGEMENT, AND INTEGRATION, NOT STATS

The villains with the most player buy-in in the campaign aren’t people who were introduced as an intentional big-bad, but the mookish folks who are easily slotting into plot-after-plot and come with specific, comprehensible goals and memorable hooks. The multi-armed Doom Squid, whose main role in the campaign is getting punked in team-fights, inevitably gets a bigger response from the players than the guy he’s working for. Even though he usually gets out little more than “I’m going to kill you!” before he’s pantsed and pummelled into submission, the players recognise him in the same way a Marvel reader recognises Dr Doom.

There’s an interesting framework for this in the Mutants and Masterminds Gamesmaster’s Guide, which lays out a four-part model for creating an in-depth and memorable villain. They come down to the level of interaction the player character’s have, allowing for the development of something more than a Me Good, You Bad relationship; the information they get about the NPC, and how well the villain integrates with the PC heroes and the setting. In this respect, Doom Squid’s recognition among the players makes perfect sense: he shows up a lot, the PCs were there at the moment he was created (and named him), and he’s got an ongoing grudge with the PC who first defeated him that defines his actions. He might not have the stats to be treated as the big-bad, but he’s one of the defining villains of the campaign in way than the actual big-bads are not.

On the other hand, it highlights one of the gaps between RPG conventions and comic conventions. In comics that process of integration, information, and repeated engagement is handled “off-stage,” via the villain-driven scenes where the primary heroes aren’t present. If you want to make villains important, you need to find new ways to build them up and generate the kind of connection that you’re looking for. This gets harder as campaigns progress and subplots iterate.

If I were starting this campaign afresh – or starting a new one –  I would be kicking off with a very limited villain pallet of about 13-15 regular names, reusing them as often as possible for the first two or three years in different combinations. This would get a whole bunch of villains integrated before I started adding new names, and even then I’d do things slowly, adding new people to replace particular archetypes only when the old villain who occupied that space evolved away from it.

3) THE MINUTIA OF HEROES LIFE IS HARDER TO MANAGE AS GROUPS GROW LARGER

We had a pretty rich supporting cast in the early days of the campaign, but that was largely the product of having two central PCs whose narratives naturally intersected via location (school) and inclination. This is a lot harder to navigate in a group of five, with fewer intersections outside of their team HQ and job as superheroes. You can alternate between two personal stories in-game without leaving too much “dead space” for the other players, but alternating between five means that a number of people are going to be left twiddling their thumbs while they’re waiting for their turn “on the page.”

In Superhero gaming, the solution for this is usually something like Aaron Allston’s Blue Booking, in which personal stories are handled via written exchanges in notebooks or online tools. This is a nice innovation if you’ve got a group who are into it, but if you’re group likes to show up and game during the game and has the kind of lives that busy thirty- and forty-somethings tend to have, then it’s gets a little harder to manage.

Theoretically, our current campaign still had a central “non-hero” hub in the assumption that the heroes were attending university, but the recent introduction of two characters who don’t fit that (and a series of sessions taking place in other dimensions) means that it’s no longer serviceable. The bulk of the NPC interactions are now happening in a “professional” context, at the Team HQ and via interactions with the police or local underworld, which means I either need to flesh out those spaces or try and find other ways to unify subplots.

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks contemplating this, and doing a bunch of reading of team-based comic books to study the dynamics. Interestingly, the shift towards the professional holds true in a lot of team-based comics, where interactions with supporting casts are either brief (less than a page) or team-centric, rather than the basis of a complex personal arc. I’m not at all sure how to replicate that in-game, but it’s given me some starting points to experiment with.

4) PERIODICALLY RE-SET YOUR PITCH TO KEEP FOLKS ON THE SAME PAGE

I talked about the necessity of getting everyone on the same pitch in the first version of this article, making sure that they’re all aware of the kinds of plots and villains they should be expecting to see on an session-by-session basis. Our early sessions were largely put together based on the player’s request for something like early Spiderman on Invincible comics: lots of gonzo, lots of relationship drama, lots of newly-emerged villains and heroes-in-high school drama.

I did my first pitch re-set around session 70, marking the point where the heroes graduated from high school and the scale of the series shifted. Rather than new heroes, the initial duo had become established and recognised and that changed the way they integrated with the setting. They started going to college, met some other heroes and developed a team, and then…well, things went off the rails. The pitch started to drift as we attempted to resolve certain subplots, particularly when new players came in and the subplots establishing their characters pulled us away from the central plots I had planned. I’d planned to keep things in the city, but the action kept travelling outside that boundary and the team gradually grew more and more mystically-focused as people developed new abilities. Then, just as we’d started to settle into a mystic-team-of-heroes vibe and set up some long-term plots, two of the players decided to write thei primary characters out of the series to bring in someone new.

This isn’t unexpected. Pitch-drift happens over a long-term campaign, but recognising that it’s happening and articulating the emerging vision yourself and your players is an important step.

5) IN-GAME VERISIMILITUDE IS INCREDIBLY COMPLEX IN SUPERHERO GAMES

When I first wrote about superhero gaming, I noted that it was incredibly hard compared to other forms of gaming. Particularly given:

It requires a big change of mindset, a lot more cooperation with the players in terms of the games narrative approach, and the tendency to veer off-course or have the players pull an unexpected solution out of a hat (or, for that matter, a mutation granting electromagnetic powers) increases exponentially.

I stand by that, but I’ve come to realise that one of the biggest challenges for the superhero GM is managing the intersecting regimes of verisimilitude associated with superhero worlds, in particular when it comes to power use and storyline.

For those unfamiliar with the term, verisimilitude is the thing that gives stories the appearance of being true. In genre terms, they’re largely a set of assumptions that guide what is possible and probable within a particular text. To quote one of the best essays I’ve seen about the phenomenon, “in a vampire novel it is perfectly plausible for a character to return from the dead, and probable that he will then go on to seek out blood to drink; in a novel of literary realism neither action is plausible or probable.”

RPG games have largely handled in-game matters of verisimilitude in two ways: the first is through a process of abstraction where possibility and plausibility are delineated by rules, or through the process of a shared regime of verisimilitude where “it makes sense within the story/genre” guide what is and isn’t plausible and possible.

On the other hand, Comics have always played it fast-and-loose when it comes to matters of verisimilitude, particularly in the gold and silver age. We are, after all, talking about a medium where Stan Lee would routinely get away with things like the Human Torch creating fire sonar, or where Cyclops’s eye-blast has been used as a carrier-beam for a empathic attack on an entire alien race. Coming up with weird and unexpected stunts with a power is practically a genre trope, even if today’s writers tend to be a little more realistic about such things.

The end result is that superhero games tend to go in two directions when it comes to powers – they either go incredibly delineated about what is and isn’t plausible with a power based upon complicated power-set attributes (Mutants and Masterminds, Champions), or they assign a handful of traits and allow the results to be somewhat more freeform and narratively driven (Marvel Heroic). The former tends to rely on somewhat more complex modelling for one-off power stunts in exchange for clearer visions of what is possible/probable, while the latter allow for more free-form power use but have fewer guidelines for what is/isn’t possible.

Regardless of the rules details behind them, all power ranks/dice/scores are essentially abstractions.

At the end of the day, both will struggle with the same problem: if a player and a GM, or two different players, have even slightly differing ideas about what is possible and plausible with powers, you effectively have a situation where people are playing by different rules because what seems plausible is fundamentally different. If you cannot predict plausibility, then you cannot predict risk and make effective choices. On the flipside, if you do not know the limits of a power, figuring out how to challenge (or even when to challenge) a player’s usage and force a roll instead of saying “sure, just go for it, there’s no risk of that failing.”

Managing this is hard in established worlds like Marvel or DC, where years of continuity have resulted in some weird-ass uses of particular powers. Managing it in a self-created world, where players are responsible for articulating the limits of their powers through abstract (and, often, not-well-understood) rulesets is much, much harder.

Which brings me to my next lesson:

6) ACKNOWLEDGE YOU ARE GOING TO RUN SOME BAD SESSIONS AND ROLL WITH IT

Like, seriously bad. More than I am used to when running things like D&D. I’m talking sessions where you frustrate the fuck out of all the players, and get frustrated in return. Because verisimilitude doesn’t just affect the way powers are used, it also affects the way you expect heroes to resolve problems. In a police procedural, a murder is resolved by investigation, interrogation, and deduction based on clues; in an action movie, its resolved by a series of fight scenes; in film noir, it’s resolved by going and engaging with the underworld and being more noble than it is.

All these approaches are leading to the same result – resolving the murder – but the way you’re expected to get there is different. Genre expectations shape plausibility as often as everything else.

And here’s the thing: Comic books aren’t a genre, they’re a medium. There’s a big difference between a batman comic which is “police procedural with superpowers,” and a Batman comic that’s “action movies with superpowers.”

Some games make this easy, because the default “how to solve things” is always in place. In D&D you go out and beat up monsters with magic weapons and spells. Players have reasonable expectations about what they’re meant to be doing to solve a plot problem, you have reasonable expectations of how they’re going to go about it.

You are going to run some bad sessions. It’s just a given. Particularly In superhero games, and especially in long-term games where heroes start turning over and new abilities/paradigms find their way in (and therefore get coupled with the problems of verisimilitude in point 5). Teams who had previously relied upon technology or magic get a guy with underworld contacts in the mix, and start hitting the streets to gather intel. The PC who has been habitually hacking everything disappears, or changes their power set, and you suddenly have to start predicting unknown methods of getting information.

Such paradigm shifts happen, sometimes, simply because you’re drawing inspiration from a different genre or improperly predicted how to keep a search for a bad guy interesting, and you’ll spend a whole session trying to get your vision and the players vision of the game into the same place.

7) VILLAIN TEAMS TRUMP SOLO VILLAINS IN TERMS OF THREAT LEVEL

Teams of supervillains are relatively rare in most superhero comics, compared to the solitary Masterminds who are usually behind most problems. This is partially a function of solo-hero titles being extraordinarily prevalent in superhero narratives, where the villain team-up into a Masters of Evil/Injustice League type thing therefore becomes a narrative drawcard.

This assumption tends to carry through into the design of most superhero settings for RPG games, where established villain teams tend to represent a comparatively small number of threats compared to a settings’ dedicated Top Leve Threats and large assortment of random crooks and thugs.

The problem with unguarded master villains in a superhero campaign is pretty simple: players have more actions than the villain in most systems, and they will basically concentrate all fire on that Super Star Destroyer until it’s on fire and ready to explode. The villain may have a devastating attack, possibly even one that will affect every player in the action sequence, but if they only get one attack per round then it’s easy for a bad roll to turn Major Threat into Major Let Down.

Villains need to have flunkies in RPG games, if only to provide extra actions and extra targets, or they need to have the kind of toughness that is incredibly daunting (and frankly, frustrating) to overcome. Get into the habit of building up teams, even if they’re unofficial.

8) REWARD PLAYERS FOR FOLLOWING GENRE CONVENTIONS

I’ll admit – I’ve fucked this up over the last year. When we started with Mutants and Masterminds their hero point system did a great job of this, but Marvel Heroic pushed the bulk of the “genre convention” rewards into their XP system which we ditched early on as PCs were either advancing ridiculously fast or simply buying 4 extra plot points per session. While some of the slack was meant to be picked up by Cortex’s limit system, when we ditched XP we simply started everyone with 5 PP (as that’s where their XP was going), so there wasn’t much call to do things to replicate genre except in extraordinary circumstances.

I’m looking at this system over again and trying to remember the core premise: hero points/plot points should be treated like reward candy, a systemic way of saying “bravo, you’ve done something comic-book-like that disadvantages you,” while simultaneously allowing the players to continue doing advantageous things with their powers and abilities later in the story. Keeping these bonuses as a thing players earn is important, as it puts the impetus for setting up the challenges associated with “keeping a secret identity” or “dealing with the conflict between hero work and school work” on them when scenes are being set up. One of the things I’ve definitely noticed since shifting away is the tendency to rely on me to set up such conflicts in a scene, which often means they’re falling by the wayside.

9) KEEP BETTER SESSION NOTES THAN YOU THINK YOU’LL NEED

I started this campaign keeping okay notes, but the habit fell by the wayside around session 70 and became increasingly intermittent from there (particularly when one of the players started recording their own session notes in an available format).

This wasn’t a problem early on, where the focus was tight, but as new players joined the group and there was less time to devote to subplots every session, it meant that we’d lost track of what had been done and what hadn’t. Things I’d been keeping a careful watch on for a few sessions weren’t so closely monitored, and at least one subplot has been rewritten when it became apparent a player and I had different memories of how things had been investigated.

My primary gaming goal for 2018 is to keep much, much better session-by-session notes for myself, alongside better planning of arcs. More importantly, I want to keep a better track of when places and people have appeared in the game, so that I can integrate the lessons mentioned in point 2 and establish a few more recurring villains at various threat-levels.

10) DON’T BE AFRIAD TO FINISH A SESSION A LITTLE EARLY IF IT GETS YOU A REVELATION FINISH TO A SESSION

We ended session 150 at the gates of a small orphanage where one of the characters got their start, preparing to break into the underground complex where a rogue Vatican faction dubbed The Grail was training a squad of super-soldiers to combat the inevitable Apocalypse. Now it’s home to a pair of their earliest villains, who have presumably set up camp there to use the advanced technology and mystic warding.

We probably could have taken an extra half-hour and done the big donnybrook that will inevitably take place when the players break in and trash the villains, but relatively few comic books finish on a big fight. The convention of the medium is finishing on the revelation of new information, or a new threat, or a new looming problem that the heroes will need to resolve. Basically, the big full-page reveal that’s designed to get you hooked into the next issue

This means, in an effort to keep things comic book-like, I will often look for an ending to a session that will make it clear what’s about to happen next time. The question of what’s the biggest reveal I can make this session is usually a guiding light – in this instance, where the villains are is a significantly bigger reveal than who they are, because the PCs were already tracking specific people and the location is attached to a PC backstory.

11) THE PROCESS OF ADDING A NEW PLAYER IS A BLESSING, BUT ALSO A CURSE

We’ve added three new players over the last 120 sessions, often at different times. In many respects, new players have a renewing effect on the campaign – they bring in a new perspective and a new character for everyone to bounce off, and they shift the dynamic between the players and the PCs. They meet the villains anew, finding their own dynamics, and open up new narrative possibilities.

On the other hand, they also represent a problem when they’re coming in mid-campaign, because you’ve got a bunch of established plots and subplots that they’re not connected too and they come with their own sub-plots that need to be established. The first time we added a new player was right as we did the first re-pitch of the campaign, which was a natural moment to pause and integrate, but the next two happened with a more haphazard approach.

New PCs also tend to disrupt team dynamics, especially when they start overlapping with someone who has a fairly well-established niche in terms of power set or skills, which means that the generic assumptions about how things get resolved tend to be naturally disrupted.

12) YOUR MAIN JOB IS DENIAL, BUT HOLDING OUT TOO LONG WILL KILL A SUBPLOT

The last version of this post mentioned that the primary job of a superhero GM is denial: you find out what the players want for the characters, then figure out how to deny them without abusing your privilege as the guy running the game. You create obstacles, lots of obstacles, from the mundane to the super-villainous, and you place them in front of the characters.

This pretty much works on every level of the game, from “getting changed into my costume” through to “getting a date” and “stopping a villain.” But the trick of making denial work is timing and a sense of scale: small wants (“I need to get changed into my costume”) need short-term denial. Major complications require multiple sessions.

But when you’re talking long-term gaming – and regardless of your definition of that, 150 sessions and seven years of gaming certainly qualifies for me – there’s going to be a slow accumulation of unresolved plot points. Some of them, despite your best efforts, are going to be stuff that feels major and long-term. This means they start taking on significance you hadn’t expected when you first set them up, and it’s easy to start finding yourself second-guessing and rewriting (or, worse, deferring) when players try something unexpected to resolve it.

This is the nature of serialised storytelling – it happens in comics all the time, in things like X-Forces “X-ternals” subtplot where Cannonball was immortal, or Spiderman’s “Who is the Hobgoblin?” arc – but it tends to be a little harder to navigate in a game where your audience is about four or five people. The subplots that matter to one person matter to approximately ¼ of your games audience, and you can’t do what comics do when they shrug and change the writer to get away from the problem.

13) THE CAMPAIGN WORLD MEANS LESS THAN YOU’D THINK

You may have a detailed, intriguing campaign world in which the campaign takes place but the reality is that Player are only going to experience the stuff that comes up in-play. I can tell you a bunch of interesting things about the non-PC heroes in my campaign world, but the only person who tends to see 90% of it is me. Like villains, campaign element are reinforced by recurrence, interaction, and integration and even over 150 sessions the list of things you can meaningfully engage with is incredibly low.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t develop your campaign world – odds are, if you’re running a superheo campaign, it’s because you’re a comic book fan and part of the fun is figuring out what your world looks like and feels like. It is, however, a bad idea to spend time stating out or detailing such things if they don’t serve a meaningful purpose for the sessions you’re planning to run. Comic books worlds are interesting because there are multiple points of engagement, setting up contrast between different titles. RPG worlds are filtered through a very specific set of experiences.

The flipside of this is that campaign details are only meaningful if you make them meaningful. It doesn’t matter if you have an NPC team with a rich, detailed history if the players never encounter it, and it doesn’t matter if your players are the hot, new heroes in the setting if there’s never any mention of it or situations where their status is contrasted with others.

14) CREATE CHEAT-SHEETS FOR RECURRING FACTIONS/CONTEXTS/LOCATIONS

You accumulate a lot of NPCs over 150 sessions, and most of them aren’t showing up every session. Even the most recurring of recurring NPCS in our game will disappear for five or six sessions at a time, and they’re the equivalent of people who live in the same HQ as the heroes and interact with them daily.

I can usually remember broad strokes for NPCS – I know how many staff are involved at the local Meta Humans crime office, and what each of them do – but the number of times I’ll try to remember a first name and fail, or forget a hook associated with an NPC, is considerable. Even though I have a list of NPCs details in my campaign Onenote, it’s just too long for a quick scan to find the details I really need and even search isn’t the help I’d like it to be.

So, on a practical level, I’ve started breaking those lists down and creating “Cheat Sheets” for various factions and contexts within the game. One will involve the PCs involved in the team’s headquarters, including their boss and the support staff. Another is a list of everyone involved with the local cops, and another for the campaigns SHEILD equivalent.

Working from broad tags to specific NPCs is considerably easier than looking for a single NPCs details on their own, and it means that the details are grouped together if the players return to a faction/place/context unexpectedly or if I need to attach a name to a plotline.

15) FINDING THE SYSTEM THAT SUITS YOUR STYLE MATTERS HELPS A WHOLE LOT

Back in 2012 I mentioned two things about Superhero gaming that surprised me – that the fights were faster than I was used to in other games, and they were usually slightly duller. In Mutants and Masterminds, people tended to blast away at each other with their most powerful ability until someone fell over, and the tactical decisions were minimal.

This was particularly noticeable once we introduced our third player, who came in as a speedster who wanted to do speedster-type thing, but mostly just ended up delivering the same handful of bonus to the other player.

We swapped to Marvel Heroic because some friends of mine recommended it, and kicked it off with a test-drive using actual Marvel characters. It…didn’t go well. At all. To the point where I was almost tempted to just set the game aside and stick with M&M for good.

One of the players encouraged me to test-drive Marvel Heroic with their regular characters to see how it worked, and the results were immediately better. The speedster could suddenly make big, meaningful changes with her speedster tricks; the noble Captain America type could talk villains down as effectively as he could punch them in the face. We ran into the problems of verisimilitude and power-sets a lot more often, but it also opened up multiple solutions instead of optimizing the system for punch-blast-zap-ouch.

I enjoyed M&M – and would use it again for a different group or style of game – but I don’t think I could have run 150 sessions with it. If nothing else, it encouraged getting bogged down in the minutia of what was possible with NPC powers, even if I didn’t do outright point-buy stating. Cortex Plus made creating NPCs considerably faster and more streamlined, which means I could prep games faster. This hasn’t always involved using the extra time to prep games better, given other things that have gone on in my life, but it’s getting there.

More importantly, even though actions scenes in Cortex Plus may feel similar mechanically, they play out very differently in terms of what the characters do and support quick switches in tactics if the heroes find themselves in a situation where throwing a punch is ineffective. There will still be bad sessions, but having a system you feel like you’re working with makes a big difference.

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

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The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).

MY CHECK-IN

What am I working on this week?

I got my chapter draft away late last week, which means this week gets devoted to creative project rewrites and making the suggested changes to my prospectus document accompanying my confirmation submission.

What’s inspiring me this week?

I’ve been reading Chris Claremont’s run on X–Men from its beginning around issue #100, building towards the Dark Phoenix saga. It’s largely regarded as a genre-defining approach to comics in many ways – and you can definitely see the shift in approach from Stan Lee and Roy Thomases earlier issues – but reading it as an adult also starts to reveal some definite Claremont-isms that define his run and aren’t as fun as they were when you’re a fifteen year old comics reader.

That said, the large-scale ambition and sense-of-wonder he brings to the comic are fantastic.

What action do I need to take?

Now that I’ve got all the thesis drafting stowed away, I need to start getting fiction drafting fired up again and get back to drafts.

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Banner

The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).

MY CHECK-IN

What am I working on this week?

I’m on the final 2,000 words of my PhD chapter, with three sections left to write. One is an overview of the way verisimultude shapes the way we interpret genre, one is the way in which genres shape reading communities, and one is looking at how the way series works are being published and read has shifted the poetics of series works. It’s a lot to fit into the space, but that’s better than having not enough.

What’s inspiring me this week?

The Good Place. I resisted watching this a lot over the past month because so much is made about “the big twist,” but my partner picked it after we ran out of The Unbreakable Schmidt and it’s been outstanding. I adore the way it sneaks a bunch of legit philosophy into the narrative, and there’s just some incredible performances from the cast.

What action do I need to take?

 I really need to go through my chapter draft and double-check all the referencing is correct, and the bibliography is properly put together.

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Banner

The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).

MY CHECK-IN

What am I working on this week?

The holiday season is upon us and fitting work around the other commitments is getting harder and harder. I’ve got a metric butt-ton of thesis drafting that needs to be done this week, including some catch-up for work that didn’t get done in the last seven days, but I’ll mostly be working to keep to good writing habits as best I can during the season of catch-ups and feasting.

What’s inspiring me this week?

This week has been spent on a deep dive through various Marvel comics storylines over the last decade, courtesy of a Marvel Unlimited subscription and a particular interest in how many of the long, long-term narratives of comic books shape the writing process. The absolute best of them that I’ve come across has been Dan Slott’s run on Spider-Man, starting from the point where he rebuilt the main character’s life by putting the fact he’s a genius front-and-centre, through to the storyline where Doctor Octopus becomes The Superior Spiderman, and then the character’s re-launch. It’s an incredible masterpiece of serialised storytelling, with plot elements quietly being laid a year or more before they pay off, and getting to read them all in the compressed timeframe really shows off how well-crafted they are.

What action do I need to take?

I’m largely working from home at the moment, with the end-of-year shenanigans seeing a lot of my regular going-out-and-engaging-with-people activities put on hold while people are away. This has resulted in long stretches inside the house and very little engagement with the outside world, which tends to have a negative effect on my overall mental health. I really, really need to make sure I’m getting out of the house once a day, for a period of at least a half-hour, and preferably in a place where I need to interact with people.

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Banner

The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).

MY CHECK-IN

What am I working on this week?

I’m a third of the way through the wordcount on my thesis chapter and barely feel like I’ve gotten started. This week will involve tracing my way through part of structuralist genre theory, and really diving into the research on the role of ellipsis in constructing narrative ahead of the X-mas-to-New Year period where texts will be harder to track down.

What’s inspiring me this week?

I’ve watched and read a bunch of great stuff this week, but The Marvellous Mrs Maisell on Amazon Prime has probably been the thing that really captured my attention. It’s a project from the creator of the Gilmore Girls, Amy Sherman-Palladino, but it blends a lot of the hallmarks of her work (fast dialogue, children not fitting into rigidly-defined family roles) and blends it with the New York stand-up scene of 1958 and a level of edginess that Sherman-Palladino isn’t going to reach on commercial TV.

What action do I need to take?

I really need to go hit the University library in person, picking up a handful of texts that aren’t available online. I also need to read through the half-dozen PhD exegesis I’ve got sitting on my hard drive so I can start familiarising myself with the structure of the sections I’m wirting and start to internalise it a little. What to write is harder to figure out when you’re trying to figure out how to write it at the same time.

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Banner

The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).

MY CHECK-IN

What am I working on this week?

I’ve just hit the period where everything else gets sidelined in favour of the thesis, which means I’m expanding out my plan and filling in the gaps. This week I’m transforming my original lit review draft, which lacked a lot of focus, into the first half of a review that will actually fit the topic I’m pitching. On the plus side, I’m starting this week ahead of my word-count benchmarks for the first time, so I’m hopefully that I’ll have the chapter drafted by my Dec 30 deadline (even with all the holiday chaos about to hit). 

What’s inspiring me this week?

This has been one of those weeks where I’m spoiled for choice in this entry – I’ve read so much good stuff that’s got me eager to start work on new projects, and I’m kinda torn between three possible entries. Kij Johnston’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe was easily the best thing I’ve read this week – it’s a brilliant Tor.com novella that takes Lovecraft’s Dreamlands and starts inserting the kinds of characters who are routinely marginalised in Lovecrafts work. It’s simultaneously a homage and a critique, a complex book that’s just an outright pleasure to read.

The most inspiring books this week have been Caitlin Kiernan’s The Aubergine Alphabet and Jonathan Hadken’s All The Wasted Heat, two very different vignette collections that have got me thinking about the potential of the form and how it could be used. Hadken’s collection is a series of prose-poems about Brisbane, recommended to me by my friend Chris Lynch, that sets out to capture a mood and a place. Kiernan’s collection is framed as a weird alphabet primer, far less unified in terms of its topics but similarly effective at evoking a mood.

While there’s definite the potential for interesting work in both veins, the subtitle on Kiernan’s book (“A Primer“) increasingly got me thinking about the potential for using vignette sequences to world-build other projects, capturing a vast cross-section of a setting and building up the mood. It’s not a unique idea – two other vignette-driven works I can think of, off the top of my head, are Hemmingway’s Movable Feast about Paris and Brett Easton Ellis’ second novel, which is all about Los Angeles – but it’s a method of world-building that’s appeals to me as a pantser.

What action do I need to take?

I need to do some quality research on the use of ellipsis as a narrative device, as one of the arguments that I’m making about the poetics of series narratives is the way they leave the reader suspended in the gap between story points. Each instalment effectively ends in an ellipsis, which puts pressure on both reader and writer to search for the contextual clues that will make the omissions comprehensible.

Patreon, Tools, Tactics, and Strategy

Patreon announced a change in its fee structure this morning, which has prompted an outpouring of tweets from a number of writers I follow who have been using the platform and want to process the implications. The change is being framed as a good thing for creators, ensuring they will take home exactly 95% of every pledge, but it does so by pushing the processing fee onto the donator and this has subtle knock-on effects for the assumptions surrounding the service. Passing the fee on to the pledger means a series of $1 pledges every month actually ends up costing a buck thirty-seven or so.

Multiply that out over a year, and you’re looking at an extra $4.44 a year to kick a little change to the creators you patronise. This might not seem like a lot, but for a platform that is built itself on the concept of huge numbers of people making micro-transactions, that’s a pretty big shift.

There’s a couple of general themes and concerns running through the discussions online. First, that this is a move to drive away the small, consistent donors and make supporting creators at higher rates more appealing; the second is how the fee will be applied to people who are supporting multiple creators, which Patreon has traditionally bundled into a single change; the third is what are the other options, with a recurring theme of people setting up paypal buttons in response to the news.

I’m intrigued by Patreon, but I have no real skin in the game. I looked at the possibility of setting one up earlier this year, for a very particular fiction project, then figured there were ways to montetize what I wanted to create that better suited my circumstances.

What intrigues me about this is that I’ve seen this process before. When it comes to monetising creative work on the internet, this Sturm und Drang kicks in about most digital tools and tactics as they start to mature.

I watched it happen in the gaming industry around 2005, when the platform that made digitally publishing RPG books changed the fees it charged for the first time. Another round followed not long after, when a viable contender to the reigning heavyweight platform emerged, and they changed policies to secure their business (and encourage people to stay exclusive to their store); then again, not long after, when they sought to move the smaller presses with a handful of products out of a crowded marketplace in order to make their site appealing to the major players.

I’ve watched it repeatedly, over the last few years, as Amazon rolled out tools like KDP select, then began altering the ways in which the payments were determined.

Heck, I’ve watched it in publishing generally, where the venerable tools for getting a book out there and connecting with readers started opening up and asking people to think about what’s the best way to achieve what you want to achieve in writing. Prior to ebooks and the internet, that was barely a question.

ON TOOLS, TACTICS, STRATEGY, & DISRUPTIVE TECHNOLOGY

In 2009’s BookLife, Jeff VanderMeer’s outstanding book on the strategies and survival tips for the writing life, he breaks down the basic problem between tactical and strategic thinking:

Because writers often work organically and hate doing mechanical things like detailed novel outlines, they sometimes also shy away from creating actual lists of long-term and short-term career goals. Instead, many of colleagues have daily, weekly, or monthly “to do” lists that help keep them focused but also keep them stuck thinking in tactical mode, which makes it hard to engage strategic thinking. Yes, you know what you want or need to do for the next thirty years, but what about for the year? What about for the next five years? How do your daily/weekly/monthly tasks feed into a short-term goals, and how do your short-term goals feed into your long term goals?

In really simple terms, strategy is the overall vision of what you’re trying to do and tactics are the plans you use to get there. The latter should be in service of the former, but a good strategic vision means you’ve got a level of flexibility in how you’re getting there. It’s a similar insight offered by by Neil Gaiman’s conception of goals as a distant mountain you keep moving towards, rather than a map, and one of the reasons I advocate people getting out of the habit of assuming publication is their goal.

What’s interesting about living in the age of digital disruption is the tendency for people to produce tools that make new tactics viable. There is nothing particularly new about Patreon’s core strategy – going out to you fans has always been a tactical method of monetising art, as seen by the history of patronage and the existence of professional street performers. What limited that idea, in terms of making a viable amount of money, was access to enough fans with sufficient wealth and desire to support your work. The internet has made that access possible, and the crowd-funding model that Patreon built off meant you needed a large number of people willing to donate very little, rather than a handful of people willing to donate a lot.

This same thing is true of the ebook boom, and kindle unlimited borrow payments, and any number of other digital tools. Even something as simple as “create an online author platform.”

All tools evolve: once upon a time we hammered shit in with rocks, then someone invented the hammer; after everyone used the hammer, someone invented the nail-gun. The problem with the emergence of a new tool, which opens up a previously unviable tactic, is the ease with which it becomes assumed that it’s an unchanging, long-term strategy. One’s approach to making an income becomes tailored to the toolkit they’re working with, and it feels like the rug is pulled out from underneath you the moment the tool changes.

I’m yet to come across a tool aimed at creators that hasn’t changed and evolved as it matured. They’re all owned by people and companies looking to make their organisations viable, pursuing their own long-term strategies and applying different tactics. Patreon is four years old, and the last twelve months has seen significant buy-in from creators on every level, so it’s not a surprise that they’re adjusting their focus (although, looking at their rhetoric around the change, I’m surprised by the choices they’ve made in conveying that).

Good tools are seductive. Good tools built by people who are looking to monetise work on your behalf will always present themselves like long-term strategies because, as VanderMeer notes, they’re working with creative-types who don’t excel at strategic thinking and just want to get through the next ten minutes instead of the next ten years.

Moreover, the people building the tools are very good at encouraging it: having delved on the indie side of things for the first time in a while, I’m consistently impressed by Amazon’s ability to make it look like the upload process isn’t really finished until I’ve broken down and put my books on Kindle Unlimited. Similarly, while I ultimately decided against a Patreon, I’m consistently impressed by the way they sell their services to those who have expressed an interest.

It’s hard not to get suckered in, particularly when there are early adopters who are doing great and the approach feel revolutionary. I’m pretty sure every creative has one experience with it – I learned it the hard-way in my RPG ebook publishing days, when the consequences of building my tactics around the habits of just one sales site bit me in the arse just as I got my press established – but the response is the important part.

Railing at the folks who changed the tool feels great in the short-term, and may even have results and get things reversed for a time, but even if that happens it’s never quite the same. You’ve just seen the shift in their thinking, and you find yourself fretting about what happens if it changes again. The people engaging with that tool have just seen the same.

You no longer get to make tactical decisions on autopilot, which means folks either learn to think strategically and adapt, accept that they’ll do what they’ve always done and there will probably be less, or give up because it’s just too hard to keep going.

Only one of those is a truly sustainable option, but it’s also the hardest of them if you’re not used to thinking in those terms.

 

Horn & Bleed on sale at Twelfth Planet Press

So I’d ordinarily show up here and talk up The Birdcage Heart and Other Strange Tales, given that it’s the new kid on the block right now, but we’re heading into the holiday season and ebooks aren’t particularly good presents to give people.

On the other hand, I have written some print books and right now the publisher who backed Horn and Bleed is having a sale where you can pick up both novellas for $15 dollarydoos. If your’e still after a copy (or just want to traumatize your loved ones this Christmas), head on over to the Twelfth Planet Press website