Sunday, November 29, 2009

Under the Dome

by Stephen King

King's latest book returns to familiar ground: a small town in Maine.(*) The premise is simple: the town of Chester's Mill has been surrounded by an invisible force-field. No-one can get out and nothing can get in. The town is completely cut off from the outside world.(**) What happens next?

* See also Salem's Lot, The Tommyknockers, Needful Things, and Bag of Bones. In fact, Chester's Mill is located just outside of Castle Rock and TR-90 - the settings of those last two books.

** In fact, Under The Dome feels like a cross between The Simpsons Movie and Lord of the Flies.

The book starts well: quickly establishing the situation and exploring it in clearly described scenes that feel truthful and reasonable. Over the next 200 pages, though, the book starts to bog down a little bit - moving from scene to scene between a vast number of characters; Under the Dome has such a large cast that in the earlier stages I often lost track of who I was reading about or what their story was. I also found myself not caring about many of the characters - something I've never experienced in a 'small town' King novel before. King has a gift for rapidly establishing why a character is worth paying attention to - something which seemed to occasionally missing here.

At some point between pages 200 and 300, however, the story picks up. Characters begin to interact with each other, their scenes and stories begin to tie together. Most importantly, it became clear to me that the first 200 pages had set up a series of questions I desperately wanted to know the answers to. As I sped through the next 400 pages of the book, at first it was because I knew exactly what disasters and crises I wanted to read about and King kept paying them off in better, more intriguing ways than I'd imagined. And then he started to spin the situation into chaotic directions I didn't expect, and as a result I surrendered myself completely to his story-telling.

The middle section of Under the Dome is a pleasure to read.

If I have criticisms of the first two-thirds of Under the Dome, it's that on my first read the deterioration in the town feels too quick. Partly that's because people react in extreme ways very quickly once the dome goes over the town; partly it's because there are a couple of utterly bugnuts crazy people already in the town. Chester's Mill is unstable before the Dome goes up, which is great for creating drama, but not so great for observing what would happen to a bunch of normal people in this situation (which I think is what I was expecting to read).

Which brings me to the end. Under the Dome has to resolve three big questions:

+ What is the Dome?
+ Will they get out?
+ How will the political situation in the town be resolved?

I'll deal with that in the next post.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Scriptshadow Logline Competition

One of my new favourite script-writing related sites, Scriptshadow, is holding a competition at the moment. Readers have submitted loglines for their screenplays, and Carson (who runs the site) has chosen his favourite 100. Here's the original post with the full list;

I thought I'd share my favourites. In general, it looks like I picked material where I'm genuinely intrigued about how the situation will be resolved, or it seems like a fresh take on an idea I've seen before, or it has something to do with sex. Here are my picks:

Title: Silent Night
Writer: James Luckard
Genre: Thriller
Logline: With a brutal serial killer stalking Nazi Germany at Christmas, the Berlin detective on the case gets reluctantly partnered with a Jewish criminal psychologist released from Auschwitz to profile the killer.

Title: Traders
Writer: Hugh Quatallebaum and Joe Graceffa
Genre: Comedy
Logline: Two best friends in a Chicago trading firm are starting to question their relationships with their live-in girlfriends and starting to wonder if maybe the other guy has it better. Then one day, they wake up in an alternate world where....they've swapped girlfriends.

Title: For You, My Love
Writer: Tess Hofmann
Genre: Drama
Logline: Despite being a closeted homosexual, an affluent New England family man lives for the health of his marriage -- until his oldest son comes out and makes him reconsider his decisions for the first time in decades.

Title: The Fake President
Writer: Crawford Funston
Genre: Comedy
Logline: A whip-smart Senior Advisor -- secretly running the White House for a
daft President -- suffers a head injury, and wakes up under the delusion
that HE is the President. Denied access, he builds his own makeshift
White House, and begins running the country, setting up a showdown
with the real President.

Title: Couples
Name: Edward Ruggiero
Genre: Comedy
Logline: The friendships and marriages of three couples are tested after they share a group sex experience while vacationing together.

Title: Senioritis
Writer: A.J. Marchisello
Genre: Black Comedy
Logline: An over-the-hill Principal plays hookie to relive his glory days with a burnt-out high school senior.

Title: When the Hurly-burly's Done
Writer: Jonah Jones
Genre: Sci-Fi Thriller
Logline: Living people are turning to dust everywhere on the planet. A world-wide team of police, spiritualists and scientists, led by a British detective, tries to track down the source. They discover the purpose of life on Earth and the reason for its imminent conclusion.

Title: Played
Writer: Deborah Peraya
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Logline: A total womanizer transforms his female best friend from clinger to player, finds himself attracted to his new creation but has taught her a little too well.

Title: The Murder at Cherry Hill
Writer: Joe Pezzula
Genre: Thriller
Logline: When murder strikes the oldest and wealthiest family in Upstate NY, the prime suspect's confession reveals a stirring cross section of social class, corruption, and deceit, all of which explode across headlines, resulting in the last public hanging in the region's history circa 1827.

Title: Aftermath
Writer: Jared Waine
Genre: Drama
Logline: After a giant monster attack on Miami, three disparate people- a retired sailor, a burnt-out virologist, and a torn rescue worker- deal with love and loss amongst the ruins.

Title: Run-Off
Writer: Jordan Innes and Mo Twine
Genre: Adventure Comedy
Logline: A pair of mismatched deadbeats embark on an ill-fated rafting odyssey
down the urban toilet known as the Los Angeles River in search of
adventure and a fresh start.

Title: Ground Work
Writer: Patrick C. Taylor
Genre: Action/Thriller
Logline: His flight from LA to NYC canceled in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, an Arab-American hitman must travel across the country to complete a job, facing the most hostile environment possible for an Arab with a gun and a guilty conscience.

Title: A Constant Variable
Writer: Chris Rodgers
Genre: Sci-Fi/Drama/Comedy
Logline: A quantum physics professor finds himself on the outside of his own life, looking in, when he time travels twenty-four hours into the future and gets stuck there.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Play: November 2009

It's time for me to play around with a few ideas, to try and figure out what my next project might be. This time round I'm looking at:

Destinies: a web-series based on a Primetime Adventures game I played a couple of years ago. I want to have a brainstorming session with a few people in the next couple of weeks.

Bad Family: I've been working on an elaborate version of this game for a few months now - a version that fully explains to a new reader what they have to do in order to play. However, with Kapcon coming up, I probably won't get a chance to finish this version to my satisfaction in time. Instead, I'm going to do a massive cut-down of the material and playtest it to see if it works.

Threat Level: I've started fleshing out some ideas for something I'm pitching as "24 the role-playing game". I'm pretty happy with how it's turning out.

The Orphans: I'm having a lot of fun outlining a horror movie for kids, and I'd like to keep working on that.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

New Media: No more CDs! No more DVDs!

I suspect reading about what the media landscape is going to look like over the next five to ten years has made me decide I'm not going to buy CDs or DVDs ever again.

First off, EVERYTHING is going to be available for us to download. This BBC article about has convinced me that having access to everything and not needing to own it is the way forward.

I'm looking forward to owning less stuff. As I see it, there are three tiers of media: stuff I'll watch once, stuff I'll watch more than once, and stuff I develop an emotional attachment to. It's only stuff in that third category I really need to own. The other stuff I'm happy to download as bandwidth becomes cheaper. (In fact, I watched the first episode of The Cult on TVNZ on Demand and thought the experience was fine.)

But, obviously, this raise concerns about the companies providing these downloads censoring material or restricting access to them (through price, digital rights management [DRM], or whatever. But the counter to that is torrenting.

I also think that JP's concerns about not being able to own the physical artifact are going to be addressed through:

i) treating the physical items as rarities
ii) being able to manufacture any item you want in-store (burn a CD, if that's what you want, or print any book you have the files for).

I also recommend checking out Amanda Palmer's post, 'why i am not afraid to take your money':
artists will now be coming straight to you (yes YOU, you who want their music, their films, their books) for their paychecks.

please welcome them. please help them. please do not make them feel badly about asking you directly for money.

dead serious: this is the way shit is going to work from now on and it will work best if we all embrace it and don’t fight it.

And a bit of an RPG geek-out: The Future of Tabletop Gaming. If that post was too long, and you didn't read it, then here's the summary: Technology is going to change gaming. That's inevitable. So figure out what tech-assisted games are going to look like, and go out and make them.

Tabletop gaming favours young people.(*) Pretty soon, we're all going to be carrying around extremely powerful computers (iPhones, smart phones, PDAs). The costs for developing programmes for these ubiquitous technologies is getting cheaper.

(*) As you get older, it's tough to get people together for a game once you factor in family commitments, transport, and work.

Therefore, we'll move away from books, and into creating technology assisted imaginary spaces. And the business model will change:

... [Do] whatever it takes to get people playing your game. The old model was Selling More Books = Making More Money. That’s gone. Already gone. The future is more people playing = making more money.

... Sell your content. No, I don’t mean your fifty pages of history for your setting. I mean new classes, new skills, powers, gear. Stuff your players can use. Stuff they can play with.

... The lesson here is not “Augmented Reality is going to change tabletop gaming.” AR is just one component of it. The fact that all the players in the target demo will live with and on their personal mobile web devices complete with cameras and social networking is the lesson. The fact that they’ll pay you $5 for a new class or race is the lesson.
I think I disagree with one minor thing in the article: I can see how tech like virtual tabletops and Skype can get older people together, while still balancing families and work. But the rest of the article seems pretty damn sound to me.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Facebook: Signing up and playing defence

So I recently joined Facebook. Apparently everyone who does this comes up with a justification for it. Mine's that I'm extremely lazy, and I want to keep track of keep in touch with friends overseas with minimal effort.

The thing that scares me about Facecrack Facebook is variable reinforcement. The problem is that there isn't something new on Facebook every time I check; things update randomly, so that I feel I need to keep checking in to see if anything's changed - and I'm rewarded by that often enough that pretty soon I started looking at it whenever the urge takes me. That, alone, would erode my willpower ... but couple it with the fact that people might be responding to something I wrote about myself, and pretty soon checking Facebook becomes the most important thing I have to do. And I have to do it right now.

I realised most of that going into making this decision. Possessing the ... unique character traits that I do, I did a lot of research about Facebook before signing up - trying to figure out how to stop myself from wasting as much time on it as I could. That hasn't been successful at all, but I figured I'd share what I discovered here.

But I also want to know your tips and tricks for using Facebook. How do you set it up? What are your suggestions for minimising procrastination? I need your help!

The most useful I've done is create lists, grouping my friends into different areas. For instance, I've got separate groups for university friends, people I've met, online people, Australia, and Auckland. By dragging those groups up above Status Updates and News Feeds, I can make them the first thing I see when I log on.

(You can create lists by going to the menu on the left of the home page, clicking more, and creating a new list. The process is straightforward from there.)

Next I changed my privacy settings so I wasn't searchable via google, or viewable by anyone other than friends. Not quite sure why I did that, but it felt right. Check this article for more details on privacy.

The most important decision I made was "No games. Ever ever ever." If they show up in my feed, I hide notifications about them. Facebook games would destroy my life.

In order to not get enticed onto the site all the time, I initially turned off all email notifications for everything. No emails whenever someone becomes my friend, or posts something to something I've written about. But, in some way I can't articulate yet, I think that's a mistake. What I need to figure out how to optimise my use of notifications. I want the emails I get to satisfy my Facebook desires and discourage me going on it so often. Perhaps I should change the settings so that they email me only when someone has posted updates to statuses I've commented on?

I try to remember to use the hosts file to block facebook when I'm working. There's a how-to here, but essentially I need to open a .txt file in your computer, enter:

and I win. It means that I can't open that website anymore.

I've also read that you shouldn't poke, so I don't.

So those are my tips. What about yours? As I said: I need your help!

Monday, November 09, 2009

Left Coast: The First Playtest

Back in 2005, I wrote a game called Left Coast, where you play science-fiction authors in 1970s California who are all struggling to write novels and hide your growing insanities from your families. It's a quirky, funny setting with a very clear target audience - and until last Sunday no-one had ever played it.

What that meant is that I had an idealised version of the game in my head. I was pretty confident I knew what sort of stuff would happen, what sort of fun would be had, and what problems would emerge. I was making a lot of assumptions, and the process on playing and testing the game on Sunday was really a process of challenging those assumptions.

I thought that setting creation would be fun and easy, and that the characters would wander around hanging out and having conflicts naturally emerge. What really happened was that setting creation (which involves brainstorming a sprawling relationship map) was fun but slow, and when we started to play, it wasn't at all clear what should happen in a scene. Additionally, I became disturbed that:

+ the game lacked subtext
+ there was no process for turning the stuff in the setting's relationship map into scenes
+ there was no sense of what the characters should do.

(You can find a previous thread discussing this game, here.)

In this post, I'm going to briefly describe the characters and setting Simon and Malcolm created, and give an equally brief description of the two scenes we played through. After that, there's a short list of the huge issues that this playtest threw up for me. I'm hoping that Simon and Malcolm will join in with their thoughts on the playtest, so I can see it from their point of view.

In other words, I don't have a clear 'goal' for this playtest report yet. What I'd like to do is gather some impressions and mull the experience over. (Also: I'm not actively working on Left Coast yet. My current aim is to finish Bad Family by the end of the year and then start thinking about what's next. The opportunity to play Left Coast is an important part of that.)

Characters and Setting

Characters in Left Coast are defined by the type of author they are, a first or middle initial, a significant relationship, and a goal. Malcolm created K. Joshua Fresnel, a Jewish right-wing idealogue whose dog 'Benito' talks to him. Fresnel's goal was to find someone to put on 'Traktofaktori!', the musical satire of communism that he wrote while locked up in a psychiatric facility.

Simon came up with Richard H. Long, a hack and a pervert (think: your worst sterotyped assumptions about the author of the Gor novels) whose most significant relationship is with his feminist daughter. Long's goal was to find a publisher for his serious novel, 'The Wandering Years'.

Setting design consists of brainstorming elements to do with Family, Money, Nuttiness, and Alien activity. This was a fun but problematic stage of the game, but we came up with elements such as Behind (an alternate reality), Karl Hickenlooper (editor of 'Stories from Beyond'), Rabbi Schlomo Troutmann (who Fresnel owes money too), and Richard Nixon.


We played out two scenes - one for each author. I was disappointed in myself (as GM) during both of them. Primarily because the game doesn't provide a way to turn all of this interesting setting material that the players are excited by into scenes.

However, there were also problems in:

+ identifying conflicts (and whether conflicts, in fact, need to exist)
+ what to roll when the conflict doesn't fit into one of the existing arenas (Family, Money, Nuttiness, and Alien), and
+ taking a 'Californian' approach to scene selection - leaving what dice to roll undefined until the conflict is clarified.

I'll let Malcolm and Simon talk about the specifics of what happened in their scenes if they want to. The short version is that both scenes were supposed to be about the author taking a step towards their goal only to have someone interfere with that. As a GM, I felt I was being pretty clumsy about introducing an obstacle/NPC into the scene, and that things felt increasingly adrift as the scenes went on.

The Big List

I took notes throughout the playtest, and afterwards the three of us spent quite a bit of time debriefing. I tried to identify some of the fundamental issues that I'm going to need to address if this game is going to end up working. I've ordered these so that the issues I think are most important come first ...

What is Left Coast about? What's its subtext?
The major thing that threw me during the game was while Simon very reasonably started to explore what the first conflict in the first scene was actually about. We were talking about whether there was stakes-setting in this game, the free-and-clear phase in Sorceror and IIEE. And all of a sudden, Simon asked, "What is this game about?" Which completely threw me - it's a question I don't have an answer to; it's a question I've usually needed to play a game a couple of times before I start having an answer to it.

Related to this was that in the two scenes we played, the game lacked subtext. There was no story going on underneath the events we were playing out; there were no NPCs with hidden motivations; there were no conflicts or agendas pushing back against what the authors wanted; and there was no sense of significance or resonance to the events we were playing. That felt like a problem to me; the game felt hollow.

What's the situation? What do the characters do?
Left Coast seems to be a game with a strong idea of who the characters are and a clear setting (in fact, I felt all three of us were a little bit in love with the setting - I certainly am). The game just lacks a situation that combines the characters and the setting together.

When Simon and Malcolm pressed me on what the characters do, I thought about it for a while and then said, "They try to form meaningful relationships." I'm not sure if that's 100% right; I need to think on it more.

Why do you have conflicts?
When do you hve them and what do they resolve?
The main reason I pushed for conflicts was that they are the way of introducing more stuff into the setting. They're also a way for the PCs to advance towards their ratings. But that's not an answer to the question of 'Why do you have conflicts?' It's got to be more than just me as a GM putting obstacles in front of the characters, doesnt' it?

How can I make it easier to GM? How do you turn the piece of paper with all the setting elements written on it into scenes and conflicts?

How can I make setting creation flow smoother?
It needs to be more fun. It needs to be faster. This was probably the area of the game we discussed the most, and had the most ideas about. Starting points to explore include: reducing the number of facts each player has to create; introducing elements via playing out scenes with them; using Apocalypse World's technique of 'walking around the setting' during the first session, just to set everything up.

Should I amalgamate the Nuttiness and Alien ratings?
These two ratings felt like they covered similar terrain - imaginative, weird stuff in the setting. In addition, 'Alien' is supposed to be about abductions, UFOs, government conspiracies, invasions, etc. When we were playing, it felt like that was locking down the subject matter of the game too much; as the person who'd written the game, I'd pre-decided what the weird elements of the setting where going to be - and that didn't interest me when we sat down to play it.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Poker: Time to quit

Maybe you know that I've been going through a phase of learning to play poker. Well, I recently realised that it's become a cul-de-sac; playing poker has reached a certain level of reward for me, and spending more time on it is probably not going to increase the satisfaction I get out of it.

How do I know that? Well, I've just gotten two books on poker strategy out of the library and have started studying them. They've confirmed for me that there's no way I'm ever going to be the best in the world at poker - all I want to do is achieve a certain level of local competence, and unlock the next level in my cellphone poker game.

Once I've done those two things, I'm going to massively ease back on my efforts to study and play poker. However, this has made me realise I'm interested in learning a little bit more about probability.

In the meantime, I'll use this post to record what I've learned from reading these books:
  • You have to give your consent if you want to lose money in poker. That's why going all in can be a terrible move. Sure it'll intimidate a lot of people, but it's also totally risky if you're called on it by someone with a better hand or no idea what they're doing.

  • The objective is to stay in for as long as possible - the fewer the number of players, the easier it will be to bluff and have better cards than they do. To achieve this, all you need to do is win money equal to the big and little blind ever hand.

  • Don't call. Don't let your opponents see your cards for free. Raise or fold. And remember that the people who stay in after you raise probably have a strong hand.

  • You must have high start cards to win (AA, KK, QQ, AK, or AQ) - you should strongly consider not folding on these hands. If you're feeling like taking a chance, then you can play moderate starting hands like (K-10, Q-10, J-10, J-9, or 10-9). You can also play anything with an ace in it - however, from A-9 down to A-4, only play if the cards are the same suit.

  • Don't count on the Flop improving your hand. It usually won't. The chances of the Flop not giving you a pair are about 68%. In addition, if a card that's higher than the ones you're holding hits the Flop ... consider folding.

  • The hardest players to beat are the patient players.