Thursday, March 31, 2005


by Philip K. Dick

I’m now seeing a pattern with most PKD novels. I find his initial approach too philosophical or focused on the characters. Then, at some point, the story turns into a gripping thriller. That’s certainly the case with VALIS which, because PKD claimed many times it was based on true events that happened to him, is basically about a crazy person who has verifiable evidence he’s talked to God. As a consequence, it turns out we’re all trapped in a Roman Empire version of The Matrix where the part of Neo and the hackers is being played by early 1st-century Christians armed with secret knowledge from Hyperuniverse I.

Worth checking out, especially his use of a dual-narrator to indicate mental illness.

[Western] My Darling Clementine

dir. John Ford, scr. Samuel Engel & Winston Miller.

20% documentary and 80% classic Western. As John Ford said, “I knew Wyatt Earp … and he told me about the fight at the OK Corral. So we did it exactly the way it had been.” Here’s a movie that’s tense, funny and classy

See Henry Fonda either imitating John Wayne or portraying an authentic frontier accent. Watch Victor Mature embody both an effete, tubercular surgeon and a lethal hard-drinking gun-fighter. Witness Indians, Mexicans and cattlemen getting a hard time (and read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States to get an idea of how unfair that is). Enjoy 90 minutes in Tombstone, a town I’d be scared to visit.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

[SF] Undead

by the Spierig Brothers
* ½

Great special effects, cool ideas and at least 10 hysterically funny zombie movie moments.

Incoherent action, ending and logic. Multiple 5 minute stretches that lack tension. Two dickheads sticking guns to the head of the Man Who Knows What He’s Doing and making him do the stupid thing.*

Upshot: A neat, inventive big-looking little film shot on low budget with a script that made me go (20 minutes in) from, “Why isn’t this movie famous?” to “I understand why this movie isn’t famous.

* Also some patchy performances.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

[TV] Gilmore Girls 5.2

The Season 5 plots emerge: the consequences of Rory becoming sexually active, Luke and Lorelai finally get together, and Lane may be in love with her band’s singer.

The episode also detonated a nuke that the casual viewer wouldn’t see: Lorelai and her daughter Rory have been arguing for 3 months. Lorelai has also become neurotic about cleanliness and everything being in its right place at work.

When her best friend points out that this is exactly how Lorelai’s mother behaves, we realise Lorelai’s teenage rebellion contributed to her mother becoming an icy-bitch.

It’s a powerful realisation that simultaneously illustrates the motivations behind three generations of Gilmore women and makes us keen to see them all reconcile. Another demonstration of how the show is about subtle conflicts.

Monday, March 28, 2005

[RPG] The Celebrity Machine

I’m working on a new Sorcerer setting: the cost of being a celebrity in Hollywood.

(Edited to add: it's getting some really good responses from readers.)

Saturday, March 26, 2005

[RPG] Toon Town Confidential

Just finished running a game of Sorceror set in the Who Framed Roger Rabbit? universe.

Got the initial idea July last year. Pitched it to my group in October. It went completely off the rails over Christmas and I needed a lot of advice from the Forge to figure out what to do. Last week, I had an intense discussion with Ron Edwards (Sorcerer's designer) while prepping the game. In the end, everything turned out great. We had a blast.

Friday, March 25, 2005

[TV] What does ‘a 3-dimensional character’ mean?

To me, 3D means a character feels ‘real’. Achieving that means writing someone whose actions are ‘plausible’ and who audiences find ‘fascinating’. I can think of at least 7 qualities that you need to consider.

Uniqueness. Back story. Subtext. Attitude. Motivation. Sex Appeal. Humour.

1) Uniqueness. Is this someone we’ve never seen before?

2) Back story. Lots of juicy secrets, hidden agendas and a colourful past, all just waiting to be revealed in the current plot. My (borrowed) rule of thumb: ‘Never devise a new character or piece of the setting without coming up with a secret about them.’

3) Subtext. In this case, subtext means having them involved in two storylines; the pressure of one storyline informing the other. But it could also mean that the character has a secret we know about but the other members of the cast don’t.

4) Attitude. Make sure they differentiated from the other members of the cast in the way they approach conflict and think about life. See any Joss Whedon series for examples of this, but especially Buffy from Season 1 to 5, watching how each new recurring character is introduced.

5) Sex Appeal – what type of sexy are they?

6) Humour - what type of funny are they?

Last and most important:

7) Motivation. It needs to be consistent from week to week as well as within episodes. Everwood provides a good example. However, motivation is a defining characteristic of 3D characters. The things they want are what we find gripping to watch. So motivations need to be plausible (consistent with what we know about the characters and what the writers know about their backstories), fascinating and unique.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

[TV] F&G – Stalker Humour

It’s the funniest of all humours.

Here’s another episode that deepens 2 secondary characters – Nick and Cindy – to such an extent I suspect they're about to be revealed as the real leads of the whole show. And, dear lord, the funny. Not a dead scene in this whole installment.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

[The Limit] Act 1 done

My half of Act 1 is done and sent off to Andrew. Overall I'm happy. It's got a far more casual tone that the 'dark intense thriller' I was imagining ... but there's a long way to go yet and a lot more pressure to be put on characters.

That tricky scene from a couple of days ago: first I improved it 150% by starting it halfway through and removing a lot of "I'm sad," "I'm angry," dialogue. Then today I whipped up a version of it that was about half a page long and almost entirely non-verbal which I like and which I went with.

Monday, March 21, 2005

[The Limit] Banality vs. Multiple Drafts

Yesterday I wrote a terrible version of a crucial scene and I don't care. Writing a feature film on spec means having the time to make sure a scene works. In this case, making it easy for the audience to empathise with the grief and anger the main characters feel.

Yesterday's scene was too on-the-nose. So I've brainstormed up a lot of ways to make it work. After I finish this nasty little action sequence at the end of Act 1, I'll head back, try out a couple of the most promising approaches.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

[Script] Mamet's advice

In a Sight & Sound review, David Mamet is quoted about what he's learned from writing for Hollywood. His advice: "Tell the story as straightforward as possible and play fair with the audience."

Thursday, March 17, 2005

[Poll] “Dark Forever”

That name popped into my head early this morning. I’m pretty sure it’s the title of something but I’m not sure what. So my question to you:

“What is Dark Forever about?”

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

[The Limit] Current mood: contemplative

Trying to get to sleep last night, I came up with a neat scene for later on in the movie. A sure sign this project’s starting to occupy a larger part of my brain.

I’d forgotten how good it feels to just write – solving problems at a dialogue level, trying to figure out character and get the scenes to do their jobs. Also, I’m loving the pace. I have a deadline, but I also have enough time to reflect on how to fine-tune scenes. It all feels very contemplative.

Read more.

I’m happier with the ‘discovering the body’ scene I was working on yesterday.

The scene where ‘the parents try to figure out what to do’ may need to push the story along more. At the moment, it’s just mirroring the cops’ line. The page feels like it needs more oomph. Basically, I look at each page and ask whether it’s worth 14 cents –the price of a movie ticket divided by the number of pages.

My normal approach to writing has been to fly through it and fix the stuff later. Now I realise that I’m always going to fixing stuff later, so why not try and get things as right as possible at first draft. Having a higher quality of stuff to fix will hopefully mean less work later.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

[VW] Indie computer game designers

Another article about people developing computer games without being co-opted into the traditional funding and distribution models.

Take special note of Alien Hominid, which started as a Flash game and has now been developed for PS2 and Gamecube.

[The Limit] First scene

Finished outlining the end of Act One with a tidy little action scene.

Did not finish writing my first scene, police discovering a body. Unlike upcoming moments in the script, the conflict isn't as clear here. That means some of my dialogue feels like padding.

Monday, March 14, 2005

[The Limit] Work has begun

Finally. I was a little freaked out about starting to tackle it - but decided to break it down into a manageable bit.

Now I'm working on the end of Act 1, a new action scene involving an escape from a police station.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

[VW] Design that game! 6 obsolete excuses

This article at Terra Nova explains why you should go out and write the game you've always wanted to. The bullet-point summary:

1. You can download the tools for free.

2. Do a mod for Quake, Doom, Half-Life, or Unreal.
3. Flash.
4. There are zillions of phones out there and plenty of web sites looking for games.
5. Downloadable, tradable PDF-based games!
6. Second Life.

[SF] The Embedding

by Ian Watson
**** (out of 5)

It’s a thriller about aliens who want to harvest human brains for new forms of language and it’s about an Amazonian tribe trying to stop their jungle being flooded.

The Embedding is kind of whacked out and unpleasant and I didn’t like any member of the human race by the end of it – but still a pretty compelling read.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

[RPG] Forum is up and running

The forum for our Tuesday night RPG group is now live at

[SF] The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of

By Thomas M. Disch
** (out of 5)

The subtitle is 'How science-fiction conquered the world' but this isn't the history I was expecting. Rather it's a survey of trends in science-fiction over the last 120 years coupled with some first-hand gossip about the quirks of famous SF writers.

After a weird opening chapter about America as a culture that celebrates lying and then an unconvincingly argued chapter on Edgar Allan Poe as the progenitor of science-fiction, Dreams then settles into its stride of identifying a subset of science-fiction and looking at the prominent books inside it.

Those trends include: Space Flight, The Bomb, Feminism, Religion, Militarism and Alien Contact. Dreams also identifies the future of SF as lying with fan-fiction, a sentiment that the creator of the revamped Battlestar Galactica agrees with.

Friday, March 11, 2005

[Astral] Bare Bones, assembled

Spent the day writing the revised version of Astral. It's very sketchy in most places but the basic structure and processes are all in place.

Probably flesh it out during my day off on Sunday - and then look to pull it into a publishable form (or at least showable to those who are interested) over the next fortnight.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

[Astral] What’s this game all about?

After a couple of months of jamming up more and more ideas for Astral, I reached the point where I had to confront fundamental questions.

What’s it about?
What do you do?
How simple should the rules be?
Should I use all the ideas I’ve come up with?

To answer all that, I needed to know what my design goals were. What principles I’d use to make decisions about this game.

So here's how I sorted my design goals...

Following some advice on the Forge, I wrote up an Example of Play. One page about 3 players going astral for the first time. It was fun and lead to a couple of new ideas: Knocks, Stones and setting bonuses.

Over the next 3 days, I distilled out points from that. Every piece of information I could extrapolate from what I’d written. Stuff like: “People start in real life,” and “Scenes end in cliff-hangers.” But also more conceptual stuff, like “This seems to be less about role-playing in character and more about plot.”

Next, started to focus on what my design goals where. I asked what play should feel like and what Astral’s premise was.

Astral seems to have a simple, fast-paced and urgent playstyle. Players have lots of cool powers, lots of narrative control and can usually do whatever they want. As I said above, it’s quite meta, less about role-playing in character and more about plot.

This is very different to my original idea for how the game would feel, which is slower and more focused on exploring cool new worlds – so I’ll probably do up that original idea as a 1 page freebie …

The Premise I’ve locked down is really a question: Can you solve your real life problems by going astral?

Today, I’ve been applying Jared’s three questions to make every element of the game reinforce that question. For an example of how that works, I’ve realised I only need 2 Ratings. Simplifying that down makes writing this so much easier.

So now I think I’m ready to take a crack at churning this out. I’ll be working on that tomorrow and we’ll see how it turns out.

[TV] Some Starting Points

Before you start writing a TV show, here are some things to do:

1. Be passionate. You have to love something about the show, whether it's the situation or the characters. This love is a big part of what will get you through all the hard work ahead. I used to have the following phrase taped above my computer as I wrote - "The Goal is to create a world I completely believe in and care about." That's not a bad starting point.

2. Be comfortable. Make sure the style of the show is one that you can write easily and naturally. You'll have tight deadlines and people screaming at you. The least you can do is make sure the odds are stacked slightly in your favour to begin with.

3. Be realistic. Assume you will only get one season. Make sure you tell your show's essential stories. Your finale doesn't have to wrap up the situation entirely but it should provide some sense of closure.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

How to be a Super-grrl

Seven Mistakes Superheroines Make, over at Alternet.

I disagree with Point 6 and cite 'Angel' as my evidence.


Some general updates:

The Limit
1. Working through a Stakes and Conflicts document.
2. Assign scenes on Friday.
3. Start writing on the weekend.

1. Just reversed the Basic Mechanic so it's more intuitive to use.
2. Wrote an example of play last night, as per this thread.
3. Introduced some cool new setting elements and a Premise: a conflict between real life and astral life.

Other stuff
1. Final episode of My Life with Master tonight.
2. Hopefully seeing a kick-ass martial arts film tomorrow night.

Gotta go!

Sunday, March 06, 2005

[Astral] About the Character Sheet

Wow. Designing a character sheet is hard. I’ll have to persuade a graphic designer to give this game a once-over before it’s published.

However, this sheet contains pretty much all you need to play Astral. It’s got the four Ratings (Attunement, Focus, Ethics and Fear). The arrow moving clockwise round the sheet from Attunement indicates which Ratings are more important.

The Ratings will go up and down pretty rapidly throughout the game so take 4 paper clips and put them over the numbers you’ve selected for your Ratings. You slide the paper clips around to adjust your scores.

[Astral] Character Sheet

Saturday, March 05, 2005

[Script] Stakes and Conflicts

The last line of a scene is the most important line. The last line can clearly prime the audience for what they should expect to see next. In other words, the last line can set the Stakes for the next scene.

A Stake is a question that we are emotionally invested in learning the answer to. For instance, "Will Peter survive?" While there are stakes for the overall movie, they are most immediately applicable on a scene and sequence level.* The answer to the Stake is provided by the Conflict.

Scenes that I like tend to have a Conflict in them. You can represent this with the formula, "[something] versus [something]". Typically there will be at least two people in a scene, with each of them representing one side of the versus. At some point during the scene, you that the writer will make a choice for one side or the other. This is similar to what Robert McKee calls the Turning Point in his book Story. This choice will set up the stakes for the next scene.

Incoming Stake - Will Peter kill the suspect?
Conflict - Peter's respect for the Law versus Peter's certainty of the suspect needs to be punished.
Resolution - Peter lets the suspect live.
New Stake - What will Peter do with the suspect?

Importantly, I believe that both sides of the Conflict should represent aspects of your story's Premise. For example, all Conflicts in The Limit deal with The Law versus Vigilantism.**

So, each scene has a Stake and a Conflict.
The "versus" of the Conflict provides a choice that needs to be made.
The results of that choice also answer the question of the Stakes (and set up a new Stake).

* Have to expand on the relationship between these macro- and micro-Stakes at some stage.
** The Premise is your story's underlying theme or message. Really, it's a moral. It says if you do [something], it will lead to [something]. For instance, 'Greed leads to loneliness'. The idea of the Premise is expanded on much more clearly in The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri.

Friday, March 04, 2005

[RPG] Thought-provoking Quotes

This post is a convenient place to collect all the insightful quotes about game design I've been spotting recently.

Start thinking about your game with The 3 Questions (what's it about, what do the characters do, what do the players do). Pay attention to Vincent's comment, here.

In this interview, Vincent Baker was asked what the most important thing is a game needs to do in order to be successful:

"It needs to express your passion. Write about something that moves you, and I mean really moves you. Designing games is like writing fiction or poetry: design from your worst, meanest, ugliest, most hurt place. Or your most in-love place. Or your sweetest, most naive place. Design to expose yourself.

"Human contact, right? It should happen between the players, and it should happen between the players and the designer."



Ralph (Universalis) Mazza wrote this:

"The essential element of design that tends to get skipped is the part of the process where the designer makes hard decisions about what the game needs and what it doesn't. Assuming the game needs everything is just lazy design. Some games (like Multiverser) have a good reason for needing a wide range of things. Some games (like Trollbabe) don't.

"Knowing the whys and the wherefores of a proposed game design is the very very first thing the designer should do...LONG LONG LONG before worrying about the relationship between skills and attributes."

This post also makes some interesting points.


Ralph also wrote this: "Including rules for things you need is good design. NOT including rules for things you don't need is ALSO good design. Your design goals are there to tell you which is which. " He's talking about plausibility versus realism, in this thread.


Ron Edwards continues his 'through the door' metaphor of RPG design here. With a coherent design philosophy, "
explaining role-playing or this whatever-it-is to non-gamers becomes easy to you, and intriguing to them - "hey, can I try it?" is their instant response."


"Have mechanics that focus play on what the game is about. Then gloss the rest." So says Mike Holmes in this post. Kind of a companion piece to Ralph's comment above. Mike's reply to failrate further down is also worth reading.


In this thread, Ben Lehman talks about basic design principles he's come up with:

1) Every act of resolution must have meaningful stakes.
2) Understand who can say what.
3) Know what your game is for.
.... 3a) If "realism" isn't what your game is for, why do you care about it?
4) Trust the players
5) Don't be afraid to innovate. Don't feel you have to innovate.
6) Write for you. If you don't love your game, every last scrap of it, by the time you are done, you have failed.


"I think it's very important to spend most of my time designing the setting first. I think all other aspects of the system should be integrated in tightly with the setting. If I don't truly understand my setting, how can I design an action check system that captures it's flavor?

When I've fleshed out my setting, I'll go through each design element and ask myself how I'm going to accomplish it while integrating it in with the setting. Each of these questions usually end up a page under the appropriate setting in my binder.
" Comments from Roy in Structured Game Design.


Jared Sorenson has
Three Big Questions:
1) What is your game about?
2) How does it go about that?
3) What does your game reward/discourage/encourage?


Lumpley's checklist of what to look for in the cool new games.


A resolution system to nick from Vincent, for Power!


Check out Tony Irwin's comment in this thread (he's #16). It's a great point about explicitly saying where the fun is in your game; about using the rules to spell-it-out.


What Vincent thinks the complete game should have: a checklist (including a focus on either
violence, sex, children, money, God, or art).


Wednesday, March 02, 2005

[lovebites] How to have a hit TV show

Here’s a rant about network executives.

This is back in 1999. We’d gotten through the initial meet-and-greets with the execs at TV3, made friends, negotiated our creative positions and everything was approaching being lovey-dovey.

Cue: regime change. There’s a new CEO at TV3 and we get a new Head of Drama. This is the person we’ll be liasing with. Now both these people are due to speak at the SPADA conference for 1 hour only. But at the same time, the Weta guys from Lord of the Rings are having their first presentation ever about all the cool shit they’re about to unleash on us.

Now I’m a geek. Finding out about this stuff is essential to my well-being. And Sean and Andrew feel kinda the same. So we say to Larry that we’ll catch up with him later, we’ll just pop across to the LotR seminar rather than look at what TV3’s plans are for the next year.

Read the shocking true story of what happened next!

Pay attention. The point’s coming up in about 2 paragraphs, but it depends on what you’re about to read.

Larry reassures us that he knows the Weta guys. He’ll set us up with an inside look at the studio, so don’t worry about that, come along and check on what the execs have to say. We go along, we listen … and Larry never gives us that tour he promised.

Did Larry lie? That’s not important. What’s important is what he should have said, which is this: “Guys. Grow up. These are the only people who have to like our show for things to go well for us. We will go to their seminar, we will meet them and be nice to them … and in return you may have a shot at succeeding. So stop sulking about your little robot monsters or whatever, and get with the programme. Get in there. March. March!”

Why should he have said that? Why should he have slapped us in an inconspicous location until we obeyed with good grace and grins on our faces?

Think of a TV show like a product. That’s what everyone else in the ‘industry’ does.

The 2 basic things you do with a product are make it and figure out what to do with it. The people at the TV network are the ones who figure out what to do with it. Now think of it this way: you know all the politics and wrangling that go on inside your company? They go on inside a TV network. Only in a network, your performance is measured by Neilsen ratings every day. It’s paranoia and fiefdoms and people who want to get involved in the creative process. Hunter S. Thompson was talking about TV news when he said it was:

"... a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. "

But really it applies to all TV shows. Certainly, I copied it and stuck it to the wall of our writing office to look at when I was trying to get inspiration for a comedy scene.

Anyway, in that minefield of insecurity, belligerence and competing agendas comes your show. If people like it, it will get treated well. What determines likeability? Is it any good? Is it sexy? Will advertisers pay for time during it? Lots of other stuff, including …

Do the people who have just received this programme like you?

You see you need someone who will champion you inside the network. So as a writer or producer your goal here is simple and fundamental: Establish a good working relationship with whoever it is that you are dealing with at the network.

I’m running out of steam here, so I’ll go into details about what that relationship is and maybe another (maybe slightly more bitter) rant about what happens when you don’t realise that’s the goal later.

[VW] Hapland is fantastic!

If you followed yesterday's link about Flash games, you may have discovered Hapland. After spending an hour and a half playing it I can report it's an enormous amount of fun for anyone into solving puzzles.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

[VW] Budding Game Designers, Ho!

Check out this post at These Damn Machines ... .

It's talking about how some cool games are getting designed via Flash - and how that's putting the means of production in the hands of the masses.