Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Creativity Cycle

Right now, I'm putting the finishing touches on the post-apoc magic that Reality Deviant comissioned. I'm tentatively titling the setting "Slaughterhouse Earth", which has a cool, brutal feel to it. I'm having alot of fun, because Post Apoc stuff can be as ridiciulous as you want to make it, I can include really brutal, biting social satire, and vent my spleen at the world by basically blowing it up.

My writing process goes something like this. Right now, I'm working for Whataburger asa graveyard maintence guy- making better money than I was at a 'real job' ironically enough. I get off work between 7 and 9 am and go home and write till around 3 pm, when I finally crash. On my days off, I spend usually around 10-12 hours writing. It's funny. Even when I wasn't getting paid for it, I wrote just as much. There have only been a handful of days in the last few years when I haven't wrote, at least for a few hours.

The only time I'm not writing is when I'm up in Dallas/Denton with some friends for the Wizard World Texas con, which is the only time I see my best friend and his wife these days. Even when I'm on vacation, I feel sorta uncomfortable not writing- I try to get all my freelance assignments caught up before leaving. The only time I'm not writing hardcore is if I get a new videogame.... but that's pretty rare. the last game I bought was Final Fantasy X2, when my computer was down last month.

Anyway, I usually pop on a DVD to listen to I write or turn on the local hard rock station, C-101. I've been listening to a bunch of post apoc movies while I work on Slaughterhouse Earth: I just bought Grindhouse: Planet Terror (I'd already found a cheap copy of Death Proof- great flick) and Resident Evil: Extinction, I added that to Cyborg, Land of the Dead and, the Devil's Rejects and Colors... not post apoc, really, but tribal, distopian and violent, which fits the theme sorta. The whole project is about violence and terror, so I pop on some good, gory, ANGRY movies.

Anyway, while working on S.E. I've been picking up some of Louis Porter's stock art- some of the early superhero stuff he's put out- to decorate Psi Watch. I really like the art, which has a VERY strong early Image vibe, which is exactly what I'm going for in a cost effective way. I've been working on the color myself, a really garish, slick, metallic style which mimicks the early Image style of coloring. I've been having alot of fun with, I've lined up some more art from Anthony and Amanda, and I might end up putting out an open call for peices on I'd also like to liscense some existing peices from Deviant Art, but I haven't heard back from those cats n' kids yet, unfortunately.

Finally, I'm looking forward to my next projects. The first Otherverse Release, focuing on the Neo-Witch Covenant, a collection of cybernetically enhanced, neo-pagan pro-choice activists is in the design stages, and I want Amanda, with her intricate, feminine, detailed style to take a stab at some of my designs.

Guide to the Known Galaxy will be coming soon. As soon as Slaughter House Earth is done, I'll do some more art and start buying stuff for it. Look for it in a month or so.

After that, I've just started researching another D20 Decade book: The Sixties. I like D20 Decade because it's a fast, easy project to put together, and I can do most of the image work with public domain and historical images,and I should be able to find a bunch of cool art for this one. Plus, this puppy will definately be a tribute to my mom and the stories she told me about the decade....

Talk to you later, I'll be going back to writing now....

And I'll sleep eventually.


Friday, April 18, 2008

Old Comic Book Day

It's been a pair of weeks since I last posted. Right now, I'm working on a post apocalyptic magic soucebook for Reality Deviant Publishing. So far, we've got 3-4 new player races, a half dozen new advanced classes (Here's a preview of some of their names, because a cool character class name is the most evocative part of the concept: Slatewiper, Romero's Legionnaire.) I'm including a bunch of new mutations, new feats, spells and gear as well as location details about two or three major regions on this one particular post-apoc Earth.

I'm waiting to get some $$$ together so I can start buying art for Psi-Watch, and once I get my wacom tablet set back up to start doing some more art of my own for Psi-Watch and Guide to the Known Galaxy. I realized how much I enjoyed doing D20 Decade: The 80s, slamming together a quick product in less than a month, with no financial outlay, and getting it out there to be enjoyed by the consumers.

Right now, since alot of the blogs I'm reading are doing comics articles, I thought I'd join the mix. I'm going to post some cool comic book covers: the covers so good I just had to pick up the comic. SOme of the comics beneath the pages may have sucked, but man, oh man, these are some of my favorite images.

Here goes:

This is the image that attracted me to Milestone Comics, a late and lamented imprint of DC which did some of the best superhero stuff of the mid-90s. I'd never heard of the team, or even of Milestone itself at the time, but this image slapped me upside the head from its place on the spinner rack. It didn't look like superhero comics: the only thing I had in my vocabulary to describe this was cyberpunk. Not the Gibson style of cyberpunk, but the wild and crazy, magic and mutants style of Shadowrun cyberpunk. I picked this issue up contents unseen, just on the strength of this awesome image.

this image of Daredevil came out when I was in 6th or 7th grade. I must have spent days tracing the image, putting my own superheroes into this pose, trying to capture the sheer power of the image. The story beneath combined genetic engineering, feminism, and 3rd string Marvel heroes. Basically Ann Nocenti brought together a Daredevil, Ultron, the Inhumans and a genetically altered sex-b0t into a story together, and it worked. How it worked, I don't know but I did really enjoy this arc.

You know how I mentioned sometimes the cover would be awesome, but what inside would suck. Here's an example of that. Storywise, I couldn't give two shits about Harbinger, or anything else Valiant put out, but this is such an evocative, cool image.

It's hard to narrow down the Lee and Silvestri era of X-Men comics to a single issue, but I've always really like this cover. The reavers never looked better than they do here.

Anyway, that's all I have time for today. I'll have to be skulking off to work. I'll be slaving away at my crappy real job, and than head home to do some work on the Apocalypse, and mabe some projects of my own. (I'm going through a serious release slump: I need to do some more quickie products like Advanced Classes or equipment books to get some more products with my name on 'em up on Rpgnow's front page. I'm not sure if I should do 'em as work for hire, and make some quick cash, or release 'em through Otherverse Games and build up my little company's catalouge. Not sure which would benefit me the most. Anyway, talk to you soon. )


Wednesday, April 2, 2008

In Media Res

“In the middle of things”.

It’s a literary technique, and one of the strongest ways an author can open a work of fiction, right in the middle of the action, forcing the viewer/reader/player to jump right into the story, acting on instinct and emotion and only filling in the details of previous events later, if at all. It’s also a literary technique that’s almost never used in role playing games; adventures usually begin at level one, on the first day of the quest, at the doorstep of a new adventure.

A while back, I promised you my thoughts on Final Fantasy X, and here goes the first installment. I’ve realized the reason that the details- the reality of Spira comes through so strongly is that we, as gamer and viewer are thrust directly into the mix of things. Bad-ass opening cinematic, and than a fight scene, with deeper world details coming after the fighting is done and over. You, the gamer/viewer, learn about the world by doing. There’s exposition, sure, but for the most part, I learn about Spira by participating in the day-to-day life of Spira: your own screen avatar performs religious ceremonies, plays the world’s sports, rides the Shoopuff, and explores the world.

There is a baseline level of exposition and understanding necessary to understand the main story, which is conveyed in a traditional manner- through dialogue and non-interactive cut scenes, but the player can go as deeply as he or she wants into the world. By completing mini-games, side quests, reading info text about the monsters and NPCs in the forms of Shinra’s encyclopedia entries, and dialoguing with NPCs you find more pieces of the puzzle that is the world of Spira, and you’re tangibly rewarded for doing so. More exploration equals better gear, cooler spells, prettier cut scenes, additional missions and powerful, optional boss-monsters to fight.

I realized that Spira is laid out like a giant, interactive puzzle- the literary equivalent of the cube from Hellraiser. Play with it a while and it’ll reward you. The videogame model of story telling is a really interactive, player dictated, 21st Century way of conveying information By contrast, most RPG products are laid out like encyclopedias or travelogues. The reader is a passive participant in the action while reading through the text, only becoming active when the game begins.

As you read through the book, you’re like a tourist boning up on the entry visa requirements for the Coalition States (Rifts), perusing a list of bars and taverns in Waterdeep (Forgotten Realms), or reading a newspaper about the troop buildups in Breeland (Eberron). You’re not a citizen of that world living, breathing, fighting and fucking every day of your life within the universe. Depending on the skill of your game master, and your own role-playing abilities, you might become a citizen of a fictional country later, but when you first read through the rulebook you’re not even a visitor- you’re a guy watching a travel documentary and deciding if you want to visit.

Not knocking any of those settings, by the way, because they’re all great worlds. I’m just saying that they’re all laid out in the same, fundamentally passive, old-school way. Why not do something a bit different? The question is: how do you bring Spira-like interactivity and mystery to gaming? In addition to Final Fantasy X, I’ve also recently become obsessed with ‘alternate reality games’ like, so that may flavor my opinions a bit.

I can think of a few products that come close. Now, this is just off the top of my head, but Aberrant (White Wolf) is on the right track. Sure, the world is still explained by chapter after chapter of exposition, but at least it’s not all in the same voice. Instead, the world info is conveyed with newspaper and magazine clipping, website screen caps, corporate brochures, and other artifacts from within the universe. Not everything is explained; though you know enough to run a good game just by purchasing the core book, those who try to ‘solve’ the mysteries by buying additional splats are rewarded with additional information, usually in the form of more pieces for the puzzle.

The Freedom City Sourcebook (Green Ronin) takes a different approach to interactivity. The book is a traditional RPG world book; on the surface there’s nothing that differentiates it stylistically from other RPG setting guides. The sourcebook takes the usual encyclopedia/travel guide approach to describing the fictional Freedom City. The interactivity comes in the in-jokes, homages and Easter eggs the writers tossed into the manuscript.
In addition to reading through for content, the reader is forced to constantly analyze the text, trying to catch all the NPCs who are named for famous comics characters or creators; the reader is enjoying the world info on two levels. First, the reader is reading through normally, deciding what kind of characters to make and planning out the adventure. Second, the reader is metaphorically wandering through the streets of the city, looking up at the skyline and trying to catch a fleeting glimpse of weirdly familiar superheroes at the same time they’re chuckling at in-jokes like the Trainor and Jordan International Airports.

So, what does this mean for me?

Simple. I’m going to try something new and a bit risky with the Otherverse America campaign setting. I was reading through the rough text of the manuscript today, and I realized something. It’s written in the passive, encyclopedia-style format and to me, maybe because I’ve lived with this world in my head for so long, is kinda dull. Nothing wrong with the encyclopedia-style format, but why not do something a bit different?

How about instead of a 5,000 segment on Choicer holidays, I put the reader/gamer directly into the middle of one, pushing their way through an crowded San Francisco street fair during the Roe Day parades, hearing the constant drone of advertising smartlights, smelling the bar-b-que cooking in sidewalk stalls as you chase a psi-capable Lifer terrorist though the milling crowd. Instead of talking to the reader about the insular nature and xenophobia of the Lifer enclaves, why not send ‘em on a raid inside one of the fortified compounds and let them see things for themselves?

Why not present Otherverse America as a series of linked adventures (similar to Paizo’s Adventure Path or Louis Porter’s Sidetrek Adventure Weekly) instead of a traditional corebook? Each chapter would cover a relatively small, discrete element of the world, and would include, in addition to an adventure write up, a selection of new feats, gear and classes which are a good thematic fit for that week’s adventure. Right now, I’m planning a series of linked adventures, occurring up and down the Otherverse America timeline, but without a linear A-to-Z progression.

Each module would be a standalone adventure, but could occur months, even years before or after the preceding issue’s adventure! The first adventure might take place in 2107, following a young group of Neo-Witch priestesses who have just received their bionic badges of office, while the second adventure follows a platoon of Lifer soldiers more than 30 years earlier, while the third adventure might occur at the end of time, giving the players their first hint of the cosmic, god-level power struggles behind all the politics! I know the continuity and the setting’s meta-plot like the back of my hand, so why not take advantage of that fact?

Of course, something would link all three scenarios- maybe an important NPC during the War-era mission is the parent of one of the heroes during the first; maybe all the adventures occur in the same location, showing how a single adventure site can change dramatically down through the decades. Taking a cue from Final Fantasy and its side-quests, I might find a way to reward gamers who meet certain conditions in each scenario, speaking to (or blasting!) a specific NPC who quest stars in all the modules, for example. What form the ‘side-quests’ take, and what form the reward takes ( in game rewards like XP, bonus feats, super powers, player advantage coupons, or real-world rewards like free products, additional ‘unlockable’ content and info) are all up for debate.

The mystery of what links these diverse, stand alone 4-6 hour game sessions becomes the puzzle the players are trying to piece together, and the suspense of what the picture is going to look like when it all comes together (not to mention curiosity over what next week’s scenario will be) is what keeps the players belling up to the table, week after week.
As you can see, unlike the Adventure Path, where players will be running the same character for most of the long 1st to 20th level adventure, I’d like the Otherverse America campaign to be quick, punchy, and force the players to adopt dozens of different roles, points of view and power levels to keep things fresh and exciting. And I’d also like to borrow the ideas of quick-play battle scenarios from miniature war gaming, that each game session has specific tactical goals. I know I don’t have as much time to game today as I did while I was in the Navy, and I know its’ the same for a lot of other older gamers. Give me a 4-6 hour game session each week and I’m happy, particularly a whole module can be crammed into that session.

The upside to diverse, discrete game sessions is that players can take more risks in character creation, and not have to worry about being stuck with a badly built hero for more than a session or two. Likewise, the heroes can take more risks in game- a heroic death or crippling injury stings a lot less when you’re playing a quick and brutal, high flux combat mission with no lasting consequences for you, the player. Knowing that no matter what happens to your PC this game, you’ll have a whole new PC to play with next week can be very liberating.

The disadvantage is that it becomes hard to identify with a character you’re only going to be playing for six hours or so. I’m picturing Otherverse America as an anthology comic, filled with a bunch of cool short stories by a dozen great artists. Unfortunately, to continue the comic book metaphor, the readers might view Otherverse America as one of those second string comics where the creative team changes every issue and never really hits its stride. Also, by having new casts each adventure, the gamer misses out on what for many is the most fun part of gaming: leveling up! I might have to design a variant XP and reward system that works for this type of game, maybe something similar to a victory points system in mini war gaming.

A downside for me as a publisher is that doing Otherverse America as a weekly or monthly adventure is a bigger investment of time and resources than just putting out similar material as a big, encyclopedia style splat-book. Still, it might be worth the risk, and the setting I love deserves something this cool and innovative.

I'm Blowing Up the World Again!

The other night, I finished the revised draft of Psi-Watch. Finally able to write again (yippee!) I added over 20K words, most of which is purely world information. I built up an Image-style world, filled with lots of little homages and in-jokes to the comics. The Psi-Watch setting is an original world, to be sure, but if you’re a fan of early Lee and Silvestri stuff, you’ll find the world instantly familiar… and very damn gamable. There’s a real sense of history here, some interesting villains for your psionic supersoliders to do battle with, and some cool locales and NPC power-bases. You’ll find analogues for WildStorm Comics concepts like Gamorra Island- a decadent, cyberpunk island in the Pacific Rim where everything is for sale and International Operations (IO), a world-spanning superspy organization.

In addition, I added a handful of new feats, and a trio of new player species. Think StormWatch people- want to play Fuji or Jack Hawksmoor? Go right ahead, baby! You’ll find all the support you’ll need to do so within the pages. Finally, I decided to reprint the Mind Reaper Advanced Class, from the D7ACU line, since that class was specifically inspired by some of Jim Lee’s characters.

I figure that product is old enough that reprinting it here won’t seriously harm Mark’s sales, but naturally if he has any objection or concern, out the reprinted Mind-Reaper goes. I never want to be one of those publishers who just reprints and repackages the OGL efforts of other creators, even if I was the one who originally created the OGL material in question. I won’t be reprinting the flavor fiction which comes with the standalone class, so there is still some value to purchasing the original product if you haven’t already, especially if you like my writing.
By the way, you needn’t worry that Psi-Watch will be a lot of reprinted material- the only things that will be recycled in the entire 275 page , 100,000 plus word manuscript will be the Mind Reaper class (around 3000 words), and one of the player species, which comes to about 500 more words. I decided to pull in the Spetznaski player species, from my own D20 Decade: the 1980s, since the concept of a genetically engineered Russian supersoldier is so Image it hurts.

I really had a lot of fun finishing Psi-Watch up, and now it’s just a matter of getting this puppy laid out, for which I’ll turn to Mark’s expertise, and getting some art purchased. Meanwhile, I’m going to be working on a freelance project for Reality Deviants over the next few weeks. Remember that cool post-apoc magic project I was hired to work on a week or two ago? Well, now that I’m done with Psi-Watch, I’ll be starting up.

I’ve got a bunch of ideas for various magic using factions and some really disturbing new magical styles and powers. Disturbing will be my watchword for this project- an after-the-bomb setting is going to be grim as hell anyway, and once you start adding magic and demons and vampires, things are just going to get worse. I want this thing to be scary and disgusting and cruel, because to tell a good post-apoc story, you need all of that. Slavers, cannibal raiders wiping out struggling communities, disease, filth, infection, sentient disease, children scarred by radiation while in the womb, murder, rape, robbery, treachery, starvation… you know, a cheerful, G-rated setting.

Now, I’m a huge Rifts fan, and my first games ever were set on Rifts Earth, so that’s definitely an influence that’s rattling around the back of my skull.

I’m also keeping the Richard McCamon novel “Swan Song” in mind. To me at least, Swan Song is a superior novel to The Stand, filled with a lot cooler concepts and a much more palpable struggle between good and evil. I like both books, but I’ve re-read SwanSong a dozen times in the last few years; I can’t remember the last time I slogged through The Stand… I think I was in high school when I read it last, which may mean it’s time for a re-read.…. in the name of ‘research’ of course.

Whenever I write, I usually keep a constant loop of movies on my DVD player. During the D20 Decade write-a-thon, I was watching Red Dawn, Lethal Weapon I and II, Labyrinth and MoonRaker, not to mention a few others. For this project, I’ll be popping in some Mad Max, Cyborg, some Romero zombie horror, and maybe some Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green or even On the Beach if I can find a cheap used copy. 300 will probably find its way into the mix, because violence is violence and post-apoc is all about stylish violence. Also, the YouTube trailer for the new movie, Doomsday, is worth checking out. If I can figure out how, I’ll include a link here so you all can check it out.

Finally, on the influence front, I might include some elements inspired by the art of an internet fetish artist named Dolcett. Definitely disturbing, and I’ve got some ideas for a twist on the traditional ‘vampire’ concept inspired by this guy’s art. By the way, if you guys n’ gals go Googling for some examples of his work, be aware you’ll find some stuff definitely not suitable for a work computer. Anyway, freaky as this guy’s stuff is I kinda like it on an artistic level, and it’s inspired my writing every bit as much as works by….well… saner artists.