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The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses by Jesse Schell.  As I said, I'm learning about game design.  Because not enough people on this gamification project are gamers, let alone have ever played around with creating their own.  Schell's book is an excellent overview of game design principles, and is one of those books that turns out to be about every art while focusing on a specific one--I made connections to my writing, and caught points of overlap with The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars.

Un Lun Dun by China Mieville.  YA urban fantasy in conversation with Neverwhere and every magic portal fantasy ever.  (Bujold, at the National Book Festival last weekend, defined genre as a set of works of art in conversation with each other.  Which is the best definition I've heard that's more meaningful than "a marketing category for the convenience of book stores.")  The narrator gets drawn to Unlondon, where her best friend is the Shwazi--the chosen one foretold by prophecy who will overcome the evil Smog.  Also she is befriended by a discarded milk carton.  Then the Shwazi is defeated in her first battle, in such a way that she can never return to the city...  Recommended even if you don't normally like Mieville, as I generally do not.

Trial by Fire by Jennifer Lynn Barnes.  Second in the Raised by Wolves series, following the all-too-human female alpha of a pack of werewolves.  I love this series--it gets into the guts of agency, power, consent, and choice in a way that almost nothing else except Octavia Butler has ever managed.  It plays with the usual tropes of primally patriarchal werewolves, takes them seriously, and lets the characters take them seriously whether or not they're going along with them.  Highly recommended.

Getting Green Done: Hard Truths From the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution by Auden Schendler.  Not as hard as he thinks, but a good and entertaining discussion of what's involved in being a corporate sustainability officer.

The Big Book of Virtual Team Building Games by Mary Scannell, Michael Abrams, and Mike Mulvihill.  Sounds dippy, and is about half-dippy.  The question of how to get real collegiality in dispersed teams is a tough one, especially when the people being dispersed are not Millennial hacker types, but just people who need to coordinate a job across a large number of sites.  I've been trying to help out with one of these, and scraped some decent ideas out of this book, so it was a worthwhile read.

NOT Tim Powers' Declare. This is about the Cold War with eldritch abominations, but fifty pages in I still didn't care about any of the characters.  (Did I mention that, also in July, I had to explain the Cold War to Bobby?  That is an awkward explanation.  He was looking at some of the eldritch abominations at the Air and Space extension museum, and wanted to know what they were and how fast they went.)

NOT Melissa Scott's Trouble and Her Friends.  I really wanted to like this, because classic cyberpunk with lesbians.  But my problem with classic cyberpunk is not that their predictions failed to come true, but that their Net is much duller than what we actually got.  The Net has been around for 100 years, and is mostly the province of corporations and elitely skilled hackers.  You can get an implant that lets you walk through data like a landscape, but a visual map of the entire Net can fit on your desk.  The big conflict is that the government has just passed laws against the hackers trespassing on corporate data.  Compared to the fight over SOPA, compared to blogs and flamewars and net neutrality and the Arab Spring and Occupy and... not to diss on Curiosity, but it's kind of as if Heinlein had written smug novels about unmanned probes, and then we had interplanetary colonies and asteroid mines and ancient Martian civilizations.

Emphasized in September, when I read William Gibson's Pattern Recognition, which is basically cyberpunk about the real internet, and is interesting the way the real internet is interesting.

NOT Thomas E. Sniegoski's A Kiss Before the Apocalypse.  This is about an angel who left Heaven to become a hardboiled private investigator, but fifty pages in I noticed that all the women were there to be rescued or protected, except for the ones who were simply ignored because not interesting to the author, who were generally left behind to die.  There was one cool thing--the angel's wife, who he met in the 50s, is living in a nursing home and he still dotes on her--but it wasn't enough to keep me reading.

Other Media Consumed:

Podcasts: Wait Wait Don't Tell Me (awesome NPR news quiz--The Daily Show for folks who don't watch TV), History of Rome (entertaining, though I could wish for more daily life and less follow-the-emperor), 99% Invisible (cool short bits on urban planning and architecture), The Story Collider (stories that have something to do with science), SF Squeecast (Just won a Hugo!  Positive reviews of books/media anywhere between 100 years old and ARC status).

Role Playing Games:  S and I had a conversation, on the way home from the National Book Festival, about why RPGs are rarely appreciated as art, and how there is basically no recognized vocabulary for reviewing, reporting on, or criticizing such things--in fact, talking about your role-playing game is the archetypal Boring Conversation in fannish circles, possibly because of the lack of said vocabulary.  Nevertheless, this is how I get a good portion of my artistic, dramatic, and emotional catharsis needs met during the course of a month. 

Currently, all my games are built off of the older World of Darkness setting with serious modifications. S is GMing a DC-based Changeling game, with characters who all have day jobs they actually like--since the setting is not built to acknowledge that this ever happens, it results in some interesting conflicts. 

J is running a Changeling game following the same characters through multiple reincarnations; currently we're in Medici Florence. Thank you to everyone who visited Florence last year and helped with our research!   Also, Marie Brennan's Onyx Court series is based on a similar game--but they ran the incarnations backwards from the present.  This leaves me gape-mouthed, as forward is challenging enough as far as stunt-gaming goes. I wouldn't want to do it with people that I hadn't played with extensively before.  There are some things you just don't do without a team that you know, absolutely and for certain, has got your back.  In this case, "got your back" is everything from keeping track of what's out-of-character knowledge this lifetime, to being able to handle Lorenzo di Medici and Savonarola as NPCs.

S also has a Chicago-based Technocracy game--currently on pause, but she says she's working on the next segment.  Playing around with societal effects of technology.  Also with some of the screwy bits in the World of Darkness setting, which tends toward the technophobic.

Total Books: 5 & 3/2
Recent Publication: 2, or at least I think the Mieville is recent.  We bought it new, anyway.
Rereads: 0
Recommendations: None, I think
New Music: None.
New Media Created:  I believe this was the month I finally finished "The Litany of Earth."  Because what my stories-in-submission list needed was clearly a novella.

Date: 2012-09-29 08:04 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Delurking (and breaking out my old game icon!) to say that I posted about the stunt-gaming that was Memento after we returned to the present day. Ironically, I chose to approach it in reverse order because I figured that would solve the problem you describe of the players having to "forget" what had happened in previous incarnations (or else buy ludicrous amounts of Remembrance), but of course that method brought its own problems. As you say, I would never have tried it if I hadn't known my players well -- but we'd been in a Changeling LARP together for a couple of years at that point, and I'd played in other tabletop games with some of them, so we knew one another well enough to risk it.

. . . which makes it sound like we planned it out in advance. The truth is, I couldn't resist springing things on them as a surprise. (It's probably the writer in me). I took the INSANE gamble of playing three sessions set in 2006, ending with them drinking water from a magical spring and me saying "as you all drink, you begin to remember." Then I shut off the music and said, "This ends the first segment of our game. The title of this chronicle is 'Memento.' Our next session will take place in 1916, and you will all be playing previous incarnations of your characters. As the game goes on, we'll step further back in time, as you remember what it is you have been brought here to finish."

They rolled with it. But holy god, it was a risk, and I was kind of petrified they wouldn't be on board with it. Really, I should have been up front about the concept . . . but I can't resist a good surprise like that. I basically just trusted that I knew them well enough, and that they knew (and trusted) me well enough, to go along with it.

As for the NPCs, we didn't have that many major historical figures. Off the top of my head, I can think of Coledrige, John Dee, and Chaucer. I saved that particular flavor of self-inflicted insanity for next game I ran, and for the novels. <headdesk>

Date: 2012-09-30 01:32 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thanks for the back story! I can imagine it a little more knowing that the present was used as a framing sequence, but am still deeply impressed.

This is the second Through the Ages type game we've run, but the previous one involved vampires and was therefore less tricky. We're making it work by using prophecies to tie multiple shorter plots together into a larger one--somewhat like a series of novels. I played an oracle without prodding from the GM, but I think that an NPC taking that role would feel too forcinig. It gets particularly interesting since my character is also a pooka (incapable of telling the whole truth, for those unfamiliar with the setting). We're also making sure that at least one character has ridiculously high Remembrance in each time period. So we get to play a lot of variations on our themes, and have at least some of the characters recognize those themes.

Savonarola is central to the plot. Di Medici showed up because one of the characters, a courtesan, worked really hard to track him down and get him as a client/patron, and J lets us get away with that sort of thing if we play well.

Date: 2012-09-30 05:37 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yeah, it was all framed as the characters in the present day remembering their past lives. But eight months of weekly play went by between the two bits set in 2006, so I was pretty much the only person trying to keep tabs on that and set stuff up to pay off once the flashback portion of the game -- i.e. most of the chronicle -- was over.

A friend of mine ran a multi-century Vampire game, too. It's much easier to wrangle when it's a continuous lifetime, rather than hitting the "reset" button in between segments, with the PCs remembering little to nothing of what came before. The reset button, however, does let you play with the variations on a theme, as you say, and that was one of the great pleasures of the setup. Especially, in my case, once they snapped back to the present day (remembering what had gone before), and suddenly had a whole different perspective on who a bunch of the people around them were.

I'm curious: how are you guys handling XP and/or the revision of your sheets? I decided that, since we were going backward in time (ergo toward the pre-Shattering period and away from Final Winter), I would not only award XP each session, but a larger chunk between segments, meaning they got noticeably stronger as time rewound. I also let players rearrange and remove things from their sheets between segements to suit the roles they occupied in each lifetime, so long as the points remained equal. They were freaking HUGE when they got to the pre-Shattering segment -- but then, I sort of felt they should be. And then when the flashback was done, I let them keep . . . I think it was maybe the session XP, but not the intercalary bonuses, so they at least had something to show for eight months of play. (They did eventually get the rest of it back, too. But that wasn't until after they'd purified themselves of all Banality, preparatory to creating the Philosopher's Stone and making themselves immortal. My game may have had a kind of high-flown meta concept in there. :-) )

Pooka . . . I played a pooka in Bedlam once. It nearly broke me. If my character is not perceiving reality accurately, does that mean her lies end up being the truth?

Date: 2012-10-05 11:16 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Getting stronger as you go back does fit Changeling fairly well, doesn't it? We are getting points over the course of individual chronicles, and then each life starts out with a few more freebie points than the previous one. The characters vary in how much is constant between lives, but we're doing that more based on the individual judgment of the players than on a formal system. Sophia has the same legacies life to life, but some of the characters vary.

Although it doesn't technically apply to this game, S for her games adds an extra mechanic into Changeling--"Archetype," which we kludge as a background. Higher archetypes have a more definite story that the fae soul *is*, and it stays more similar from life to life. You get extra resistance to anything that would push you away from your archetype, and more trouble with any character development that would do the same. (So High King David, who's very clearly the King Arthur story, gets bonuses for protecting Concordia, but has difficulty producing a legitimate heir.) Although our Through the Ages game isn't using this, I'd say that in practice the characters with high archetypes have more similar sheets across segments.

If my character is not perceiving reality accurately, does that mean her lies end up being the truth?

I'm enjoying the way that playing a pooka makes you think about the nature of truth. Sophia says (although not aloud to anyone, as that would be too close to the whole truth) that sometimes she lies, and sometimes she tells the truth, and sometimes the Dan decides which it was. There have been at least a couple of points where she didn't actually use Soothsay, just said what she though someone ought to hear--and it turned out to be entirely accurate.

Date: 2012-10-10 03:58 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Ooh, I like the "Archetype" concept. We sort of had the same idea in our games (my tabletop and the LARP it was distantly connected to), but without any mechanical effect; it was just that certain characters had a very strong narrative or motif to their lives. My pooka, for example -- whom I played in 1932, 2003, and the fundamental Dreaming iteration of her story -- was an unholy mashup between "Donkeyskin" and "Swan Lake," dying tragically every time when her true love's cowardice made him abandon her to the monster (who was also her father). The reason that Dreaming iteration happened is that he went on an epic quest to rewrite their story so that he could save her.

Date: 2012-09-29 02:56 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thanks for the mention of the Schell book, which I have never heard of and as soon as I saw it I thought "ooooooh, hapaxson NEEDS this."

Thank you also for bringing up the desperate need for a critical vocabulary for games. I'm not a gamer myself, but aforesaid hapaxson is, and he and I struggle with the effort to discuss them meaningfully beyond the "cool factor" and "playability."

Date: 2012-09-29 07:28 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I was actually studying RPGs in graduate school, before I left to write full-time. Figuring out what vocabulary to use was a big part of the foundational challenge in writing about them, and I only made partial progress in solving the problem. A large chunk of the issue is that the narratives produced by RPGs are, by their nature, ephemeral; they exist in the experience of creating them, and even a recording or transcription is not a good representation of that experience. What lasts are the stories developed post facto: the simplified versions of the actual emergent (and messy) narrative process that the group collectively and its members individually polish out of the raw material after the session is over.

That is, of course, a narrative-side view of gaming (which I gravitated toward both because I like RPGs for their stories, and because I was studying them as a folklorist, meaning that "narrative" was a useful angle to take in presenting my work to my field). I didn't get as far on the game-side view of the hobby, particularly because RPGs are rarely much like games in the standard understanding of the word. But I was able to talk about them as existing in the boundary zone between those two fields, leaning toward one side or the other depending on circumstances (the system, the group, etc), and it allowed me to steal vocabulary from both sides.

Oddly, the most useful way I found to talk about live-action role-playing was actually to borrow a framework from anthropological studies of ritual. LARPs are a great deal like what Victor Turner discusses in From Ritual to Theatre: they take place in a demarcated space (the game site), are fully participatory rather than audience-oriented, are overseen but not fully controlled by leaders (the GMs), etc.

Date: 2012-09-30 01:34 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Ooh! That sounds like fascinating study. Role-playing as ritual makes a good deal of sense to me. Video games are becoming more and more well-plotted and characterized, and generally RPG-like, and are starting to develop a critical vocabulary that might perhaps eventually spill over. But I agree that the narrative/story aspect is the more interesting critical facet of both forms.

Date: 2012-09-30 05:29 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
At one point I read a book about game design for MMOs, and the thing that struck me was the chapter it spent talking about how you fundamentally can't create (substantive) content faster than your player base will chew through it. It either mentioned this specifically in the context of story, or else that's the aspect I latched on to; either way, I thought, "what you need to do is design the game, not to deliver story to the player, but to facilitate the player generating their own story." Because that's how tabletop/LARP/PbE/etc games work: sure, modules may present you with a narrative path to follow, but mostly people are generating their own narratives, using the materials and framework provided.

I'm not sure how you code for that, though, short of a situation like the post-Giant's Drink bit in Ender's Game, where the software etc. are intelligent enough to respond to Ender's actions and create new content for him on the fly. Until we have AI on that scale, electronic games are going to be limited to the options anticipated and coded for in advance. (Even narratively complex games like Bioware's are still, at their core, about the player choosing from the paths laid out for them by somebody else. You can't decide "screw this Blight business; I'm going to hop on board a ship bound for Rivain.")

Date: 2012-10-05 11:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
You could hire awesome GMs to back-end the thing. Awesome GMs don't get paid nearly enough, is my opinion.

Date: 2012-10-10 04:00 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Most of the time GMs get paid nothing, unless you count dinner. <g>

But even that method wouldn't scale. There are too many players in your average MMO -- and they need that many players for their business model to work. You have to run it like a LARP, only even more so, where players are inventing story for each other.

Which is sort of what an RP server is, I guess. But if there was a way to make that more than just text? To have it actually shape the game world? That would be interesting.

Date: 2012-09-30 03:32 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I made it all the way through the first Thomas Sniegoski on inertia, flipped through the second, saw nothing interesting, and stopped; you were probably smarter than I was, as I don't think I'd have lost anything by stopping earlier.

Declare. Well.

After more than five years of thought, I have come to the conclusion that it is Powers' best novel; he really must have something there or the book would not make me SO. INCREDIBLY. ANGRY. So angry. I spend a lot of time yelling at that book inside my head, because what it is is an incredibly well-researched, carefully plotted, intricately world-built argument that human free will is the greatest thing metaphysically wrong with the cosmos and that it is a thing of evil that any human should ever have had any. Using the incidents of the Cold War, many of which of course did in fact happen, as cases in point. It is depressingly well-argued, has a couple of characters it forced me to care about anyway, and the worldbuilding is just simply some of the best I've ever seen, and I hate hate hate hate HATE that book and have also spent a lot of time going over the rest of Powers' work trying to find out whether this is in fact what he believes. I don't think it is-- I think Declare is an examination of certain aspects of Powers' Catholicism, highly exaggerated. Or at any rate I hope so, for the man's own peace of mind. Fortunately, and I really need to write an essay on this at some point except it will mean rereading Declare, it is in almost every way including worldbuilding the evil twin of John Crowley's novel The Translator, an amazing and wonderful book. The two are similar in a ludicrous number of ways but literally argue opposite things. I went to the trouble of checking, in person, whether either author was aware of the other's book while writing; neither was.

Date: 2012-09-30 03:36 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
That almost makes me wish I'd read more of it; it sounds rather more interesting than the book I thought I was reading. Maybe I'll just read the Crowley instead.


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