Posts tagged “thoughts

Table Manners: How (Not) to Talk to Gaming Professionals

Disclaimer: This is not intended as a snide dismissal of fan input, or an attempt to crush anyone’s dreams of working for a game company. It’s intended as practical advice for anyone who wishes to contact a game designer, whether it’s to bring up mistakes they feel they’ve uncovered in that designer’s games, suggest improvements they think could be made to the system in question, submit a proposal for a possible game supplement, or even to just inquire about writing opportunities with a particular company or game line in general. For the curious, it’s written from the perspective of someone with almost twenty years of professional game writing experience as everything from a freelance writer to a full line developer, who also knows a large circle of fellow game designers at companies large and small. 

Without a doubt, we’re living in an amazing era of game design. Kickstarter, viable small press distribution, improved print on demand services, high quality PDFs, and the increased ability of individuals to reach and capture the attention of the market has transformed the tabletop rpg gaming business. Part of that evolution has been a radical transformation in communication between game designers and their fans – while in the past you might have a company forum that employees occasionally replied to, or some RPG.net exchanges with a favorite designer, a lot of the time game companies of old were often hard to decipher.

Now, though, the world of game design has become increasingly transparent and approachable, with designers blogging about their latest rules or system changes, crowdsourcing advice on game design forums, incorporating backer ideas as Kickstarter rewards and so on. As a result, things like talking directly to the creators of a game about problems you have with a game, submitting a proposal for an idea you have about a possible game supplement, asking about playtesting opportunities and the like are easier than they’ve ever been.

Before we talk about how to approach your favorite designers, though, there are a few general things you need to know about the gaming industry:

About the Business

Gaming Is A Small Industry …
Make no mistake, there are still some larger outfits still out there – Paizo, Wizards of the Coast, Fantasy Flight, Steve Jackson, just to name a few – but a significant portion of the tabletop gaming world has moved to a different model, one centered around small design houses or even individual designers. And even the “big” companies aren’t exactly Shadowrun-level zaibatsu, at least compared to what counts as a “large company” in most other industries. With that in mind, you need to understand that most companies either produce everything in house, or bring freelancers aboard on a work-for-hire basis to do their projects. There simply aren’t “entry level” permanent positions available at a lot of gaming companies – you’re either one of a small number of permanent staff, or on a roster of freelancers they hire when they need extra project hands. How to make it on that roster? Read on.

… And Everyone Knows Everybody
When it comes to publishing games, even with the self-publishing, print on demand, and the indie explosion, you’re still not talking huge numbers of industry people, and many of them have been in the business for years. Quite simply, a lot of them know each other, and they talk. Which means that if you develop a reputation as a troll, a pest, a deadbeat, a flake, or some other sort of potential undesirable, word of that behavior will travel a lot farther and more quickly than you might expect. (Conversely, a good reputation as a polite, creative, and reliable individual goes around too, and can pay off in unexpected ways at unlikely times.) Meditate on that a moment before sending a snarky reply to a designer’s email or posting a flamebait review.

Gaming Isn’t A Get Rich Quick Environment
Like a lot of entertainment fields, game writing is not exactly a path to fame and fortune – people do it because they love it, not because it’s going to buy them a separate Gulfstream for their dog. Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of successful game design professionals out there who make a living doing it! But generally speaking, the definition of successful is going to be a lot more modest for this field than, say, what we usually think of for a successful actor, athlete, or medical specialist. Be prepared about that reality and therefore realistic in your related expectations.

Check Their Application/Submission Process
If you’re interested in applying for work or submitting a proposal, make sure you read and adhere to any submission guidelines the company has posted. (If they don’t have such guidelines posted that’s usually a good sign they’re not looking for those things, though you can always check to make sure.) When I became a line developer, I was told the SOP was to destroy without reading any submissions that did not follow the posted guidelines, and I’ve since learned this is a pretty universal rule (it’s also often a legal thing). It may break your heart a bit to try to condense your 300 page sourcebook into a two page pitch, but if that’s what they want, trust me, doing otherwise just about guarantees that your submission will be deleted unread.

The Designers

Read Their Work/Play Their Games
This probably seems like the most elementary step, but when I was with White Wolf, I got more proposals/critiques than you might think that demonstrated a clear lack of familiarity with our games. If you’re going to contact a game designer about working for them or offer a criticism of their work, it’s generally best to at least read through the material once or twice, if not actually log some time playing their games. If they have a blog, that’s usually worth a read too, if only to see what they’re thinking about, learn any pet peeves you might want to avoid, and generally get a sense of who they are as individuals.

Use the Proper Channels
A lot of game designers are easy to contact these days – many have public email addresses, not to mention things like Twitter accounts, Facebook pages and so on. Try to find out how they prefer to be contacted for professional communications, and if none of their available contact information is tagged as such, it’s generally best to send your first message with a “Is this the right way to contact you about X?” message. Sometimes it will sort itself out, of course – if they only ever use their Twitter feed for joking with friends and sharing pictures of their dog doing hilarious things, it’s probably not their preferred business communication tool.

Be Polite, Precise, and Concise
If you’ve never spoken to a particular game designer before, keep your communication as brief and to the point as you can without being rude. A simple greeting, a quick explanation of what you’re interested in – “I was wondering if you’d like my thoughts on X” or “Are you looking for any writers on Y?” is fine, for example – and a thank you for their time is a lot more likely to get a response than a rambling three page breakdown of all the errors you’ve found in their game so far (or worse yet, the unasked-for resume).

If you’re approaching a designer in person, say at a game convention, these rules still apply! Try to judge if it’s a good time to approach them – if they’re drinking with friends at the bar or slammed with a line of customers at their booth, it might be best to try starting your conversation later on. If you think there’s an opportunity, introduce yourself politely and ask if they have a moment to talk about what’s on your mind – if they do, great! If they don’t, they might give you another time that would be better, and they’ll remember you as being polite regardless (sadly it’s often rare enough to be memorable). This is also a great time for business cards, as you can often hand one over even if they’re not able to talk at the time, and it gives you a natural way to contact them in the future.

Remember, Designers Are People
When you talk to a designer, remember that the game you’re discussing is the product of hundreds if not thousands of hours of their effort and care, not to mention expense and often frustration. It’s a reflection of their creative desire in dreaming it up as well as their personal discipline in seeing it through to completion, and in many cases their ability to work with a number of other professionals – artists, editors, layout designers, playtesters, etc. – in order to realize their vision. This doesn’t mean you can’t criticize their work, but it’s important to remember that personal dimension. I’ve seen otherwise apparently well-meaning gamers cheerfully tell designers that their games sucked, the rules were totally broken, they didn’t like huge parts of the setting, etc., and then turn around and complain that the designer was being a jerk or a wuss for not wanting to talk to them anymore. It’s important to remember that there’s a difference between constructive and destructive criticism – the former isn’t shy about addressing problems and complaints, but does so from a position of respect, while the latter is insulting and dismissive.

If you’ll forgive an odd extended analogy, walking up to a game designer and telling them you want to “fix” their game is a lot like walking into someone’s house and telling them you want to “fix” their decor. Sure, it might not be arranged to your taste, but they probably have plenty of reasons everything is the way it is – maybe that area rug you don’t like is covering a stain they just couldn’t get out, and so removing “just that one little thing” would actually mean reshuffling their entire living room arrangement to compensate for the alteration. Or perhaps the sofa configuration, which looks odd and impractical to you, is set up for an ideal surround sound experience for their home theater system. Or – and this is valid too – maybe they just like it that way, which is fine because after all, it’s their house. And even if you’re absolutely, objectively correct about how something is “wrong” with their decorating scheme, and they know that you’re right, it doesn’t make it any more obnoxious for a stranger to walk in and loudly declare it when a quieter, more polite way would also have sufficed.

Again, this does not mean that game designers are some special genius/martyr social caste that is above the reproach of lowly common gamers. It certainly does not mean they are infallible – I’ve had people point out mistakes in my own games plenty of times, and I happily signed on writers and approved book proposals that resulted in better ideas than what I would have come up with if I was given the same projects. I’m the first to admit my books had problems ranging from the merely hilarious to the totally tragic. I’ve been taken apart on forums, by email, and in person, and I can tell you from personal experience that I didn’t most some of the most technically scathing critiques because they were presented constructively, while other relatively minor points drove me to distraction simply because people presented them in rude and insulting ways. I’ve got a pretty thick skin – necessary adaptation to working in this field – but that doesn’t mean etiquette and presentation don’t matter. I’m much more likely to listen to someone who’s polite and presents their points constructively, or who submits their proposals in the proper format and through the proper channels. That’s just human nature. If you’re rude to me, I react accordingly, while courtesy elicits the same in return. Simple as that, and yet a step that eludes a lot of folks when they post game reviews or detailed rules breakdowns – they forget there are people behind those rules, and thus lose a lot of any potential they might have had to effect real change in the process.

Ultimately it’s important to remember that just about all game designers were regular old gamers long before they designed a system – their passion for the hobby is what drove them to want to make their own games in the first place! (And when they’re not designing’ games, most creators are still avid players.) I’m stressing this because it’s important to remember on both sides – that designers and fans are far more similar than they are different. You’re talking to an industry professional, true, but you’re also talking something that is intensely personal to them. The more you remember and respect that, the better your interaction with them will be, whether you’re offering game feedback, proposing a book or asking if they’re looking for talent for future projects.

Seriously, Courtesy Counts
I’m not exaggerating when I say that pretty much all gaming industry professionals have a thick file of stories involving times when people trashed them, their work, their dubious parentage, etc., whether electronically or in person. More amazingly, these people often don’t actually realize what they’re saying is seriously rude, or at least, that they phrased what might otherwise have been an interesting point in the most insulting way possible. I had one guy send me a very personal and highly insulting two page email detailing at length all the faults he’d found in my various publications, then turned around and – I guess having figured he impressed me with his superior intellect? – ask me to hire him for future projects. I had another person tell me “yeah well no offense but those rules are total shit” and then act completely amazed that I might take issue with his wording, as though “no offense” was a magic incantation that warded off my ability to be insulted. The list goes on, but the point is not that everyone who talks to a game designer is a jerk – just that sadly it happens enough that politeness really makes an impression. If you’re polite, professional, responsible in making contact, you’re ahead of the game. Why not get off to a good start?

Final Thoughts

So that’s pretty much that. I can’t guarantee that following these steps will mean game designers take your feedback into account for future rules changes or hire you to write that book you’ve been thinking about, but it certainly won’t hurt your chances – and in many cases, might improve them dramatically. Above, always remember that game companies are composed of people – gamers a lot like you, in fact – and that being friendly, constructive and respectful will go a long way toward developing positive relationships in the game design community.

We’ll see you at the panels!

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Table Manners is a new commentary and criticism series for gamers and their own little corner of geek culture. Like what you read? Enjoy larping in particular? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tags to read a different semi-regular advice series for larpers of all kinds. You can also follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, and subscribe to the blog to stay in the loop about future updates! 


After Watchmen: Comics 101

After Watchmen… What Next?
I was on a panel at Philcon earlier today, and I promised the audience that I would post the list I’d made up of some of my favorite comics (since I forgot the handouts I’d made to bring). So hello Philcon attendees, and anyone else who’s looking for comic recommendations! Welcome, and enjoy!

Understanding Comics & Reinventing Comics
Written by Scott McCloud. Perhaps the most definitive works examining where comics came from, how they work their special brand of magic and where the medium might be heading. They are fun and easy to read, yet also quite scholarly and informative.

Sandman
Written by Neil Gaiman. One of the most ambitious series of all time, this modern myth follows the designs of personified cosmic forces such as Dream, Death, Destiny, Desire and Despair, as well as dozens of the lives they touch throughout time and space. A heavily allusive yet very accessible and intricately plotted tale from start to finish.

Fables 
Written by Bill Willingham. Exiled from their homelands by a villainous being known as the Adversary, refugees from dozens of fairy tales band together in a small community in modern New York. A good premise executed with wit, humor and endless originality.

League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Written by Alan Moore. An arch, intelligent, postmodern examination of Victorian values featuring a “dream team” of period heroes such as Alan Quartermain, Mina Harker and Dr. Jekyll as they battle all manner of evil plots and sinister villains.

Ex Machina
Written by Brian K. Vaughn. What if a superhero decided to treat the disease instead of the symptoms? In this alternate timeline, a superhero gives up punching muggers and runs for mayor of New York. In office, the true test of his heroism really begins.

Transmetropolitan
Written by Warren Ellis. Black humor, trippy illustration and cultural satire combine in this sci-fi tale of a gonzo journalist named Spider Jerusalem and his quest for Truth! in a bizarre yet all-too-familiar future city fraught with idiocy and corruption.

Preacher
Written by Garth Ennis. A preacher sharing his body with a renegade cosmic force, his ex-assassin girlfriend and their Irish vampire buddy – and that’s just the first issue! This series is a bold, bawdy, bloody look at faith, loyalty, America and second chances.

Invincible
Written by Robert Kirkman. Son of Omni-Man, protector of the world, Marc can’t wait for his superpowers to develop – but when he at last becomes a hero, he learns just how hard life is under the mask. A sweet, funny and charmingly retro super hero comic.

Y: The Last Man
Written by Brian K. Vaughn. An escape artist named Yorick and his pet monkey, Ampersand, are the only survivors of a mystery plague that kills all the male organisms on the planet. Part mystery, part romance, part gender study, pure science fiction.

The Boys
Written by Garth Ennis. In a world where superheroes are the new weapons of mass destruction, the CIA keeps one group of absolute badasses around to keep the supes in line: The Boys. Bloody, profane and provocative, this series examines the human cost of superpowers and the damage they do on the human mind.

V For Vendetta
Written by Alan Moore. Set in a dismal totalitarian future Britain, this tale follows a freedom-fighting terrorist as he trains his successor to sow intellectual mayhem. A deep and disturbing dystopian tale in the tradition of 1984 and Brave New World.

Scott Pilgrim
Written by Bryan Lee O’Malley. A young slacker falls in love with a mysterious girl, but before they can live happily ever after, she reveals that first he must defeat her seven evil ex-boyfriends! A hilarious, slightly surreal tale told with lunatic charm, featuring manga-esque art and a lot of truly funny, knowing and often surprisingly touching dialogue.

100 Bullets
Written by Brian Azzarello. An old man offers select hard luck individuals a unique gift: a briefcase containing a folder full of proof that someone else ruined their life, an untraceable gun and 100 bullets. A stylishly illustrated, grim, twisting noir action epic.

Kingdom Come
Written by Mark Waid. What happens when great responsibility no longer accompanies great power? As Superman and his peers grow older, a new generation of irresponsible heroes and depraved villains threatens to tear down everything they’ve built.

Runaways
Written by Brian K. Vaughn. A group of teenagers run away from home after learning their parents are supervillains, vowing use their own gifts to bring their folks to justice. A mundane premise, maybe, but it’s executed with real humor, wit and heart. Vaughn writes teens with honesty and sympathy, and without talking down to them.

Top 10
Written by Alan Moore. In Neopolis, a city where everyone has a superpower (however minor), who keeps the peace? This smart, quirky, visually striking “cop show” comic follows the super-police officers working to keep Neopolis safe, and it’s one helluva ride. Beware the volumes done after Moore left, though – let’st just say the quality is different and leave it at that.

Sin City
Written by Frank Miller. This graphic, brutal noir series follows a number of different characters as they move through the rain and shadows of Basin City, seeking justice and vengeance, addiction and absolution. A highly stylized series of grim, hardboiled tales.

DMZ
Written by Brian Wood. After the Second Civil War grinds to an uneasy truce, novice journalist Matt Roth finds himself the lone voice for a ravaged New York City awash in martial law, militant gangs and scared refugees. Gritty, idealistic and passionate.

Sleeper
Written by Ed Brubaker. Old school heroics and Cold War espionage mix in this twisting tale of a superhero gone undercover in a league of villains, only to find that he’s no longer sure which side he’s on. A clever blend of two genres, with deceptively simple art.

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Feel free to chime in with your own recommendations!


“The Gamers: Hands of Fate” film review!

[Update: This review refers to the film's "Festival Cut", which is available now for free streaming and $10 downloads throughout August. According to the creators, the film's "Extended Edition" will premiere in serial form in September, and apparently it addresses some of the concerns raised in this review, such as the absence of Lodge and Joanna as well as adding elements like Leo's own subplot. Mea culpa for not noting this sooner.]

Full disclosure: I’m a geek.

Now that we have that bombshell out of the way, I’m sure it will be even less surprising to learn that I backed tihe new Gamers film from Zombie Orpheus when the Kickstarter went up last year, and have been waiting rather eagerly for the film’s release. As the third film in the series, The Gamers: Hands of Fate+ is following in some pretty big footsteps – I think the first two films can best be described as witty, loving satire of tabletop gaming and the relationships of the players behind the characters.  (The creators also do a great comedy-fantasy series, JourneyQuest, which wrapped up its second season a little while back.) Understand that when I say loving satire, I mean that we’re laughing with the characters rather than laughing at them, and though gamer stereotypes are found in the films, they’re clearly intended as just that, caricatures. It’s not mean-spirited, and even if you’ve never gamed with people like those you see in the movies, you probably know people who have. It’s insightful and dead-on in many ways, but always affectionate – for gamers by gamers, if you will.

I enjoyed both films a great deal, though I particularly enjoyed the second film, Dorkness Risingbecause I felt like they really captured one of the best parts of gaming that non-gamers almost never see: the camaraderie of a good gaming group (or “table” as it’s often called).  I’ve been blessed to have great tables throughout my gaming history, but I know some people go years trying to find that perfect mix of players, and if you get gamers talking old war stories some of them will reminisce about tables they used to have much the same way people might talk about past romances and old friends. Which is where I’ll start this review of The Gamers: Hands of Fate.

[EXTREMELY MILD BASIC STORY ARC SPOILERS AHEAD. NO ENDING OR TWIST SPOILERS.]

The table that came together in Dorkness Rising returns for this film, though rather than returning to the tabletop gaming arena of the first two movies, most of the film’s action is centered around sarcastic competitor Cass as he tries to master a collectible card game (CCG, for the uninitiated) in order to impress Natalie, an equally sharp-tongued gamer girl who catches his eye at a local tournament. The rest of the table is still there, particularly Leo, who acts as the Morpheus to Cass’ Neo as he teaches him the ways of the card game, though I wish some of the others had gotten a bit more time on the whole. Gary has a great running subplot that pits him against a Pikachu-esque character seemingly bent on tormenting him, but Lodge and Joanna show up all too briefly, though they get some good laughs when they’re around.  (Plus we get some more resolution on their romance subplot from the second film, which is nice.) After some establishing work, the film’s action quickly shifts to GenCon Indy, where it focuses on Cass’ progress through the CCG tournament, dabbling in larp and tabletop gaming and the politics of competitive play as it goes.

As with the previous Gamers movies, many of the moves the players make in the CCG universe are also dramatized – and that’s where Hands of Fate deviates from the other two installments, as drama is the key word here. Whereas the in-game sequences were almost entirely played for laughs in the previous films, allowing us to chuckle at the kind of silliness that happens around the gaming table, the scenes set in the CCG universe start off a bit comedic but are soon played mostly straight. In fact, for reasons I don’t want to spoil in this review, the story of the CCG characters becomes quite compelling, and you find yourself rooting for the hero characters as they battle sinister forces out to destroy their world of Countermay. (In a clever stroke of set design, the actors are superimposed over illustrated backgrounds drawn from the art on the game cards, literally pulling you into the card game and giving the world a cool, stylized look.)  It’s an interesting twist and ties directly into the setup for the next Gamers film – because oh yes, they set that up, and you’ll enjoy how they do it – but I must admit it did throw me off a bit, because I’d come with the expectation that this installment was going to be much like the first two. As in, lots of rapid fire gaming jokes, witty player banter and fun re-enactments of the game activities that keep us hopping between the real and fictional worlds. It has those things, but the aim is a bit different this time, and it took me a while to realize that. When I did, though, I found myself getting more and more into what it was saying.

Don’t get me wrong – Hands of Fate is still a very funny movie, and if you’re coming for another round of affectionate satire of gamers and the gaming community, you’ll find plenty of that to enjoy. (I mean, it’s GenCon – if you can’t laugh at least a little bit at what we gamer folk do there, you obviously haven’t been.) But whereas the first two movies mostly confined themselves to satire – save for the surprisingly poignant end of Dorkness Rising, which I think foreshadowed the depth that really comes through in this film – Hands of Fate starts off knowing that it has some important things to say and isn’t shy about making its points. Don’t worry, it’s not one of those dreaded Message Movies that tries to hit you over the head with its ideas until you’re sick to death of being preached at, but as far as depth of insight and cultural examination, Hands of Fate shows that the Gamers series has really leveled up.

For example, while Dorkness Rising also touched on the topic of sexism a bit with jokes about “bikini mail” and “broad swords”, Hands takes on some of the abuse that female gamers put up with and puts it front and center. In an early scene, a male gamer spouts some stereotypical insults at Natalie while she gets ready to enter a tournament; significantly, not only does Natalie absolutely put him in his place (without needing a guy to jump in for her), but then we also see him tossed out by the store owner for being an obnoxious jerk even while the guy sputters some equally stereotypical excuses for his rude behavior. (Having had experiences in the past with both store owners and players who didn’t do the right thing in that same situation, it’s nice to see a change modeled here.) Then there’s one of the central matters of the plot – the only reason that Cass learns the game in the first place is because he believes winning the tournament will get him a date with Natalie. Just when you’re about to cringe over this rather archaic plot chestnut, though, the movie turns around and throws it right back at you, with Natalie herself objecting to being treated like a prize to be won and rightly calling it out as shallow and sexist. I won’t spoil the ending of the film, but suffice it to say that her objections are given real weight, and we’re allowed to realize how easily we accept that “guy does X so girl will give him Y” premise in other movies, and how uncomfortable it really is when you think about it. No, it wouldn’t pass the Bechdel, but it doesn’t just ignore some of the attitudes of the community either, and I applaud it for that.

Edit: As the creators and my astute commenters have pointed out, the film pass the Bechdel. Repeatedly and deliberately, in fact. Mea culpa again, folks, for not checking more carefully before going to press.

Another issue that the film tackles rather effectively is gamers hating on other gamers – the so-called “geek hierarchy” of who looks down on whom – and how pointless and illogical it is. For example, Cass starts off sneering at CCG “cardfloppers” as unimaginative obsessives because they play an expensive game that doesn’t utilize the imagination the way his beloved tabletop RPGs do. Even as he starts doing well he still sees it merely as a means to an end – getting the girl – and it takes a lot for him to finally see it the way its devoted players do. There’s also a scene at a larp run by players of the CCG, where they play as characters from Countermay and meet to discuss important developments in the game’s ongoing storyline, and prior to showing up, Cass is as dismissive of larpers as he is of CCG gamers. It’s not an after school special, so he doesn’t get a special lecture about tolerance and understanding before hugging it out with a puppet, but watching him come to realize what other gamers see in their particular game styles is subtle but well done overall. It’s a reminder to never forget that when it comes to gamers, we’re all geeks, so we should embrace the fact that we all love our games more than mock each other for enjoying different parts of the hobby. Especially at a place like GenCon, where everyone is quite literally there for the love of their games.

(Sidebar: Speaking as a larper myself, I loved how true to life the larp scene was. They had larpers who were dressed like larpers actually dress at cons – you know, where we often have trouble bringing all of our big costumes and killer props due to luggage constraints – and I loved it. The costumes were fun and appropriate, but not so over the top that it immediately rang false to me as to what people might bring to a con. I know it sounds like I’m giving a very left-handed compliment there, but I’m not trying to be insulting at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. I like to see larpers represented by larpers, and I think it’s a fantastic choice to make their costumes look as much like what you see at a con as possible. Kudos to Janessa Styck, the costumer, for the great costumes throughout the film as a whole – I want Dundareel’s coat! – and for making it feel incredibly real during that scene in particular.)++

Though it’s a subplot and largely figures for comedy, Gary’s hilariously insane blood feud with Pokemon spoof Chibichan even has a message of sorts, and a pointed one for a culture that often sees things cut short before their time. (They also released a NSFW deleted scene of Lodge ranting to Leo about cancelled TV shows that speaks even more directly to this theme.) Interspersed with all the amazingly satisfying Chibichan abuse – including an absolutely brilliant Tarantino moment – is the message that you don’t have to hate something to prove how much of a fan you are of something else. In fact, doing so might actually get in the way of being able to appreciate what you like for what it really is. Like I said, it’s not something they come out and hit you over the head with, but it’s there and surprisingly sweet, in Gary’s lovably demented sort of way that is.

And that’s not even counting the existential dilemma that rolls in by the end of the film. But, in the words of Dr. Song, “Shh, spoilers!” So no more of that.

As far as the actors go, the regulars returning from Dorkness Rising are as charming and witty as ever, and it’s a pleasure to watch how Brian Lewis manages to pull off keeping Cass the sarcastic bastard we’ve come to know and love while still allowing him to go through a plausible and moving evolution as the film goes on. Scott Brown looks to be having great fun showing a bit more depth to the character of Leo – sorry, should I say Mr. DaVinci? – as he steps into the mentor role, plus the affection he conveys for the CCG really helps sell the love the players have for it. (Look for a nice nod to him and the game’s history in the throne room of Holden.) Christian Doyle is a marvelous madman as always and can pull a great Tarantino out of his pocket when he needs it, while Nathan Rice and Carol Roscoe are an adorably sweet (if often exasperated) couple.

Looking at some of the newcomers to the series, the men of the sinister Legacy team make a great cabal of menacing gamers – I’m pretty sure I’ve played against at least one of you in Swiss before! – while Trin Miller brings great strength to the character of Natalie, giving as good as she got and not compromising herself for others. I particularly enjoyed her dressing down of Cass during the larp scene, it’s the sort of wakeup call that a lot of gamers need from time to time when they start judging their fellow geeks too harshly. And Conner Marx steals a lot of scenes as Jase, the adorably enthusiastic leader of the Displaced faction in the CCG and one of Countermay’s endangered “story players” – it was hard to take my eyes off him whenever he was around, his energy was contagious and fun to follow. Samara Lerman and Jesse Keeter make a charming pair as Myriad and Dundareel, and sell the CCG scenes and their evolving storyline extremely well. Combined with Matt Vancil’s trademark witty writing and both Vancil and Ben Dobyn’s impressive direction – seriously, those crowd scenes in the finale are beautifully shot – it’s a whole lot of great stuff, folks, great stuff.

So in conclusion, Hands of Fate is another fun, witty trip through geek culture with some great characters we’re really coming to love. It’s able to keep us laughing while still pulling off a number of solid dramatic twists, not to mention sneaking in some great points about some troublesome parts of the culture in a way that doesn’t feel preachy or intrusive. The creators have shown a keen eye for geek culture for years, but now it looks like they’re ready to go beyond satire and deliver a film that’s funny, moving, and most of all, true. Superb!

+The title also turns out to be a pretty clever reference, on a couple of levels. Just a heads up.
++By the way, if there’s a R9E larp next year, I’m totally calling one of the Displaced. WWII military garb mixed with fantasy elements? I’m so in.

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I’m a larper, author and game designer who’s been publishing professionally in the RPG industry for almost two decades. I write a few semi-regular series for this blog, including Table Manners – a commentary and criticism series about gamers and their corner of geek culture – as well as Badass LARP Tricks, which focuses on advice larpers and larp organizers. Amused by the GenCon bits? I’ve written a few posts about cons as well. Interested in sexism and the gaming industry? Check out the breakout post “Guys, We Need to Talk” about gender and sexism problems in the community. You can also follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, and subscribe to the blog stay for future updates!

I would also like to note that I received no consideration for this review. I was a Kickstarter backer, as indicated, but have no relationship with Zombie Orpheus, the Dead Gentlemen, or any of the cast and crew of The Gamers film series.


Table Manners: A Very Special Geek Convention PSA

So! That last Table Manners post had some real legs, didn’t it? Wow. Y’all are amazing, I have to say. One of the responses that came up as the reactions to the post went on, though, was a call for more specific, helpful advice for gamers in general and guys in particular in order to improve or avoid some of the bad behavior that was the subject of the post. After all, these responders reasoned, if I’m going to take these guys to task for being ill-behaved and ask them to do better, shouldn’t I also do more to help them know what that means? I figured that was a fair point, so I gave the traditional Internet response – “Challenge accepted!” – and put the word out to some of the gamers and geeks I knew that I was looking for advice to help people treat each other better in the scene, then collected their answers.

After sifting through some of the responses I got, I decided to split it into two parts, spread across two posts: Conventions and Gaming. Conventions is a bit more general, and covers all kinds of cons – gaming, comics, entertainment, sci-fi/fantasy/horror, you name it. In particular, it focuses a bit on proper etiquette for approaching strangers – celebrities, cosplayers and costume designers especially – since that seemed to what got the biggest response. Gaming is a bit more specific in scope, and talks mostly about tabletop and larp gaming, though I think a lot of it applies to video games, board games and other gaming forms as well. I wanted to make them one post, honestly, but as I wrote it became clear they were each long enough to justify their own post, and I felt lumping them together would also detract from the message of each. You can look for the follow-up to drop in a day or two, promise!

It’s worth noting, of course, that these are tips and guidelines, not absolutes, and what’s appropriate in one situation might not be in another, even if they seem otherwise identical. Some cosplayers love having their picture taken, but others might decline no matter how polite you are, and even that cute couple who gladly posed for your “Dr. Who versus Pinkie Pie Deathmatch!” photo earlier in the day might just want to get back to their room and not be in the mood for pictures later on. With that in mind, as a rule of thumb I encourage you to treat each situation as its own new experience; even if you had a great conversation and photo op with a celebrity earlier in the day, that doesn’t mean you should just walk up to them while they’re talking to their friends at the hotel bar and act like you’ve been buddies for years.

Last but not least, you’ll notice that none of these tips address how to get a date, put the moves on someone or otherwise enter the sexual/relationship sphere.  That’s deliberate; I definitely didn’t want people to think this was some kind of “How to Pickup Con Hotties” or “Bringing that Elf Ranger Back to Your Place 101″ guide. Besides, I think the whole “pickup artist” scene is creepy as hell, so if that’s your cup of tea, kindly drink it elsewhere. I will say this and only this on the subject: Good manners should not be viewed as a stepping stone to or a guarantee of sexy funtimes, they’re an end unto themselves and should be treated accordingly  … but that said, good manners are also a hell of a better start to a conversation than the alternative. Just puttin’ that out there.

Convention Etiquette 101

Conventions are purpose-built sensory overload, but even in the midst of the panels and the demos and the workshops and the previews and the parties and the dealers’ room, there’s still no excuse for forgetting a few basic rules of etiquette when it comes to your fellow convention-goers, whether they’re working the con or fans like you. What follows is a series of tips to help you make a good impression and avoid the “creeper factor” as you meet people, take pictures and strike up conversations around the con. So if you’re nervous about the social rules surrounding the convention scene, well friend, we’re here to help you.

Be Nice

Yep. The Mister Rogers rule. Be nice to people. You might see what you think is a terrible cosplay and be tempted to comment on it right there, for example, perhaps even while that person is in earshot, but my advice? Save it for your blog, if you really feel the need to say it anywhere.  It’s not about censorsing yourself, it’s about taking a moment and remembering that everyone is at the con to have fun, geek out about things they love and generally enjoy their fandoms in the company of other fans for a day or two. Why take that away from someone else, just because you don’t approve of their choice of costume or favorite movie or best rpg ever or whatever else it is? You probably don’t like it when people make fun of your hobbies, so why on earth would you turn around and bring that sort of bullying and aggravation into the scene yourself?

So, take the high road when you can. Be nice to people. You’d be amazed how far it gets you.

Look, Don’t Leer

OK, I know this is going to be subjective territory at times, but let me give you a couple rules of thumb – if you’re looking at someone long enough that they look back not once but twice or more in your direction, clearly aware that you’re looking at them, then you’ve probably crossed from “looking” to “staring” (and are making them uncomfortable too). And if you’re in a place where they’re not likely to see you, like looking down from a balcony, then count Nathan Fillion credits backward to yourself: “1, Castle, 2, Dr. Horrible, 3, Serenity, etc.” If you reach Saving Private Ryan, you’ve been looking too long.  What’s wrong with that, you ask? Well, have you ever been riding on the subway or walking down the street, seen a stranger looking at you, then looked back a few seconds and saw that they were still staring at you? Creepy, right? So don’t do that to someone else across the convention floor. Sure, you may mean no harm by it – but they don’t know that, and shouldn’t have to worry about the distinction.

Also, it’s worth noting that openly staring at body parts – especially the sexy ones – is pretty much automatically going to put you in the creeper category as far as most people are concerned. And yes, it is different than simply appreciating an attractive person in general. For instance, you can think a woman is absolutely stunning and still be able to maintain eye contact for a full conversation, as opposed to spending the entire chat staring into her cleavage as though a mystical formula for transmuting d12s into gold was tattooed across it. The former shows appreciation for a whole person, but the latter fetishizes a body part to the point where the person attached to it is pretty much an afterthought. Remember, you might think that this sort of body appreciation is a compliment – “I can’t help admiring how gorgeous that costume is!”, “You can’t dress up like Captain Jack Harkness and not expect people to stare!” – but once again they don’t know what’s in your head. All they see is someone staring, and it’s likely to make them more than a bit uncomfortable.

Of course, if someone is rocking a really awesome cosplay, or is the big star of everything you’ve ever liked in film and television, or wrote that game you’ve been playing nonstop for years, or has created a super elaborate costume you just can’t believe, you might wonder: How are you supposed to appreciate all that magnificence in just a couple of seconds before moving on? Fair question. The answer is that if you think you’re going to need some serious time to appreciate the person and their work, it’s probably best to actually approach them and let them know that you’re a fan or that you’re admiring their handiwork (or both). That way you can express your admiration and not just be someone creeping on them from afar, plus it gives you the advantage of possibly getting to meet a con rock star and take some pictures up close instead of furtive, stalker-y shots from deep in the crowd.

Meeting people give you a big case of the nerves? No worries! Keep reading, we’ve got your back.

Stop and Ask Yourself, “Am I Interrupting?”

Before you approach someone at a convention, whether it’s a celebrity or an awesome cosplayer or your favorite game designer, take a few seconds to see if you might be interrupting. Conventions are busy places, and people are often juggling several things at once – talking to friends, browsing booths, texting their dinner plans, you name it. That doesn’t mean you can’t approach them until they’re standing alone and staring off into space with nothing to do, but one sure way to get off on the wrong foot is to walk up to someone in the middle of something that’s really demanding their attention – eating dinner, talking on the phone, taking a picture with someone else, having a tender moment with their sweetie – especially if you don’t seem to notice that you might be intruding.

If it looks like the person you want to talk to or take a picture of might be busy, always err on the side of the caution and acknowledge that when you introduce yourself: “I’m really sorry if I’m interrupting, but do you have a moment for a picture/autograph/question?” It’s a lot more considerate than just walking up and demanding some of their time as though you were the only important thing at the con. Plus, if they don’t have time but you’re polite when you ask, you’re more likely to have them tell you a better time later if they have one available. You show consideration for their schedule, they have a polite way to turn you down if it really isn’t a good time, everyone wins.

Introduce Yourself Politely Before Asking for Anything

OK. So you want to approach someone and it looks like you’ve got a good window to do so. Now, I know introducing yourself to strangers can be stressful as hell, no question, but as a rule it sure beats just walking up to someone and demanding a picture or launching straight into a discussion of your common hobbies. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, either; just a simple “Hi, I’m [Your Name Here], how are you?” is a great start. I know, it doesn’t sound like much, but you’d be amazed at how many people skip this step, which means that suddenly you’re putting a total stranger on the spot by launching right into a topic like you’ve been talking for years.

For what it’s worth, people are also a lot more likely to consider your requests if you approach them politely and engage them first, rather than just walking up and demanding something out of the blue. So even from a bottom-line perspective, this basic courtesy still makes a lot of sense. Practice it.

Ask Before You Touch

Here’s a big rule that a lot of people violate without even thinking about it, even though most of us were taught it back in kindergarten: Don’t touch other people without asking. Simple as that, and yet a lot of people forget it as soon as cameras come out or costumes come into play. So this one’s short and to the point – always ask before you touch someone. Even if you think it’s casual contact, such as if you want to throw your arm around someone for a photo – or shake their hand, or stand back to back, or touch them in any other way really – ask them first. If they don’t care, they’ll tell you so and you still come off being more polite than most; if they do care, you can avoid an embarrassing moment and possibly crossing into creeper territory. When I’ve posed with celebrities at cons, I’ve never had one react poorly to me asking them if I can throw an arm around them or shake their hand for the photo … but I have had some politely decline, and I’ve also seen them get justifiably annoyed when someone touched them without asking first.

Likewise, when it comes to costumes, props and cosplay in general, don’t assume you can touch anything without asking first; even if it’s a giant angel wing sticking three feet off their body, it’s still an extension of their person, and one they probably spent a lot of time working on and don’t want people messing with at random. Not only is it rude, but a lot of costume pieces are lighter and more delicate than they might appear, in order to prevent the cosplayer’s untimely death from sweating under 175 lbs of costuming all day at Otakon, and you might end up doing several hundred dollars and several thousand hours of damage very easily. I’m a steampunk and a larper who’s married to a costumer, so costume etiquette is more strongly ingrained in me than most, but let me tell you that few things annoy my otherwise sunny and amazing wife faster than people walking up and touching her costuming without asking. She’s likely fine with people examining the craftsmanship if they ask first, but if they don’t? It’s intrusive.

Oh, and About Those Photos

Just like you don’t want to touch people without asking, it’s also safe to assume that you should ask people before taking their picture. “But they’re in a public place!” I hear some people say. “And they’re dressed up! You can’t tell me that they don’t want their picture taken!” Actually, yes, I can. Believe it or not, not everyone at a con wants their picture taken, or wants it taken by people they don’t know, and that’s their right. A lawyer may not want opposing counsel to find pictures of him dressed as Weapon X; a woman might have a stalker in her past that makes her averse to any pictures of her showing up online; a celebrity might not want pictures taken when they don’t have their game face on or feel up to dealing with the public. Not that they have to share their reasons – all they have to do is say “No, I don’t want my picture taken” and that’s the end of the conversation. I know it might be really disappointing to come across the best genderbent Deadpool cosplay you’ve ever seen, approach her politely and ask her a for a photo only to be told no, but in the end, that’s her decision. Respect it and move on.

If you’re nervous about asking for a picture, you can also hang back a bit and wait for other people to take pictures – this is pretty likely with a good cosplay or a celebrity – and it gives you a natural moment to make your own request since others have broken the ice. Just try not to follow them all over the con or for long periods of time, or it’s going to make you seem like a creeper because they’re bound to notice you sooner or later.

Also, I’m not saying you can’t take pictures at a con without getting the permission of everyone in the background; that’s just not going to happen. Cons are too crowded to make that practical, and anyway, if you’re really just trying to take a picture of your best friend in front of the Evil Hat booth and a cosplayer wanders into the background of the shot, so be it. But there’s a big difference between taking crowd shots or candids of your friends that happen to include other people in passing, and deliberately setting up shots so that you can get a picture of someone else while pretending to take a different photo.

I mean, I know that right now some folks out there are thinking “Well, can’t I just take someone’s picture anyway, whether or not they tell me no or even ask in the first place?” To which I respond, stop and think about what you’re saying. What you’re describing – making a conscious decision to take someone’s picture in a way that avoids or ignores getting their consent – is really pretty creepy. And if it doesn’t seem creepy to you, that’s kind of scary on its own.

Be Cool with “No”

I’m not talking about “No means no” here, though while we’re on the subject, that too, damn straight. What I’m talking about is everything not covered by the above – autograph requests, attempts to share your analysis of a star’s last three movies, offering someone a free T-shirt from your gaming store if they’ll pose with it, you name it. It might make perfect sense in your head, it might be a totally innocent request, it might only take 30 seconds for them while it would totally make your year – and it their answer still might be no. And you have to be OK, not only with that being the answer, but the fact that you also might not get an explanation.  Because while some folks will offer one in the spirit of politeness, they don’t actually owe you one – you’re the one who approached them and asked for something, remember?

I’ve seen a lot of fans approach people at conventions with all sorts of requests, and you can see that they’ve played the exchange over and over in their head before they walked up, never once considering it might not work. “I just know Wil Wheaton will think this shirt is awesome,” they’ve told themselves, imagining the moment as he slips on their irreverent “Kobolds Do It In Great Numbers” T-shirt and thereby becomes the envy of the con. “How can he not? He’s a gamer! He’s totally going to wear it!” But remember, just because it makes sense to you and seems reasonable in your eyes doesn’t mean it will line up with what that person is OK with, either at that moment or in general. Maybe he has a policy about not accepting gifts from fans, or he’s running late to a panel and literally doesn’t have the time, or his first TPK came at the scaly hands of a kobold horde and just thinking about the little bastards gives him traumatic flashbacks. Or maybe – and this allowed too – he just isn’t interested in the shirt. All of these and countless more are legitimate reasons to turn down your request, and you have to be OK with that before you step up and ask.

In the end, remember that when you pay your admission, you’re not entitled to anything at a con beyond any special events you sign up for – such as a guaranteed photo op or autograph session – and even those usually have rules that you’re expected to follow.  Which means that even things that seem like no big deal to you might not be something someone else is interested in, and that’s their right.

Not All Compliments Are Created Equally

So now you’re talking to someone, and you want to tell them what’s so awesome that you just had to come over and say hi, but sadly, a lot of geeks are master of left-handed compliments, things that they think are positive but are actually mixed at best. You may mean all the best by it, for instance, but telling that game designer “Oh my god, I love your new game! It’s soooo much better than your last two!” isn’t likely to win you much goodwill. Why? Because even though you think you’re saying something nice, you’re essentially saying that you thought their last two games were terrible. You might not mean that – you might also like the other two – but that’s not what you actually said. Another classic is “You look really badass, for a girl” – well, pretty much anything with the “for a girl” phrase suffixed is probably a good example of a bad compliment. You might mean to say something positive, but all that the other person is going to hear is that you track women separately from men in the category being discussed, and unless gender’s an essential and obvious factor that’s not going to go over too well.

Another category of compliments that cause a ton of tension and aggravation are physical or sexual compliments. “You look so sexy!” is intended to be positive, for instance, but it also immediately suggests that you see the person as a potential sexual partner (or object). This is rarely a good way to make a first impression with a stranger, because the other person immediately has to wonder if you’re hitting on them, which can derail an otherwise pleasant exchange as they evaluate that situation instead of focus on a fun conversation. Again, you might know that you have no interest in them as a sexual partner, but they don’t know that, and given that you’re a stranger, they’re likely to assume the worst if you put them in that situation. I know, that sucks, but it’s the world we live in, at least until we change it.

And it should go without saying, but praising body parts – “You have amazing tits!”, “Your costume makes your ass look awesome!”, “Your feet are really pretty!” – is pretty much a bad call all around. Even if it’s an “innocent” body part, it makes them immediately aware that you’re closely studying their body, and that can make them very uncomfortable as they wonder why you’re doing that and if your interest is purely lecherous. You might feel like you wouldn’t mind if people said those things to you, so what’s the harm in saying them to others, but other people won’t automatically feel the same way. Now, if things take a particular turn and you wind up going on a date with them later on, that might be the time to tell them how their Akuma costume made their pecs look fabulous or how their Asuka suit accentuated their curves, but until then? Unless specifically invited to do so, I’d keep the body compliments to yourself and focus on costume pieces and props instead.

With that in mind, take a moment to compose a proper compliment or two if you have a chance. I don’t want to stress people out by making them go over and over their words until they’re absolutely perfect, but fortunately at conventions you often have time in autograph lines, panel crowds or other places to think out what you might say in advance. And if you’re really worried about getting it right, keep it simple – just say one nice thing and a thank you: “Thanks for your work, I love your movies,” “That costume is amazing, thanks for the pics,” “Your games really inspired me, thank you.” You’d be amazed how far a little thank you can go.

Have An Exit Strategy

I know most of us have this secret fantasy – no, not that one, the other one, the one where we meet one of our idols at a convention and wind up hitting it off. What starts as two strangers meeting becomes something more friendly and casual, and before long we’re swapping buddy IMs with Felicia Day or dropping guest vocals on that new Paul and Storm ode to the Valve gaming console that shall never be. Or maybe it’s not quite as star struck as that, just an invitation to join that elite cosplay group we’ve been admiring from afar or an alpha tester spot for a new MMO we’ve heard a lot about. Whatever it is, there’s this conviction that a lot of us have deep down that we’re just one good conversation with our heroes away from realizing our dreams – but while that might be true in some rare instances, it also tends to mean that people wear out their welcome at conventions trying to make it happen, turning what were pleasant interactions into increasingly uncomfortable and one-sided exchanges the other person can’t wait to end.

My advice? Don’t assume that a simple request like a photo or an autograph is automatically an opportunity for a long, in-depth conversation. If the two of you start chatting, great, I’m not saying you need to cut it short for some arbitrary reason, but try to gauge the other person’s level of engagement and excuse yourself when it looks like it’s run its course (ideally a little before it reaches the very end). If the conversation starts hitting some long pauses, or it circles back around to points you’ve already made, or they start glancing around a lot like they have somewhere else to be, you’re likely at the edge of your welcome, if not already tipping over. At that point thank them for their time and anything they might have done for you – pics, autographs, etc. – and just excuse yourself. It might seem a little awkward, but it makes a much better impression than having the moment stretch out out so far it finally snaps and they’re forced to take more direct action to end it.

Worried that you might have accidentally cut short a crucial conversation before its prime? Well, for one thing, if you go to excuse yourself and the other person protests, that’s usually a good sign that you can stick around a while longer – you gave them a chance to politely bow out of conversation and they didn’t take it. For another, this is the reason business cards were invented – have a batch of professional-looking ones made and offer them to people as you’re leaving the conversation. Nothing fancy, nothing too cute, just your name and some basic contact information. That way if they want to get in touch with you later – for example, to get copies of the pics you took of their cosplay – they have an easy way to do so, without requiring them to find a pen or whip out their phone. What’s more, giving them a card means future contact will be on their terms as well – they choose when and how to contact you, which is a lot less pressure than asking for their info on the spot. Plus offering a business card can result in receiving one in return, which can also tell you a lot about whether or not someone is interested in continued contact.

Speak Up

Last but most certainly not least, remember that con culture will only change for the better when it hits a critical mass of people who stand up to the jerks and call them on their bullshit. If you see someone bullying a reluctant cosplayer for a picture, speak up. If you see someone getting creepy and not taking no for an answer at the hotel bar, speak up.  If you see someone ridiculing another attendee for how they look or what they say, speak up. I’m not saying wade in with fists swinging – if you think a situation’s tipping dangerously, by all means call security or the cops – but a lot of the bad behavior arises from the fact that nobody speaks up when the jerks act like assholes, which makes them think it’s OK to be that way. If we can get enough people to make it clear that it’s not acceptable, it may not change their minds, but it will take the megaphone out of their hands and give the rest of us a chance to speak our minds instead.

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Table Manners is a new commentary and criticism series for gamers and their own little corner of geek culture. Like what you read? Enjoy larping in particular? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tags to read a different semi-regular advice series for larpers of all kinds. You can also follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, and subscribe to the blog to stay in the loop about future updates! 


Table Manners: Guys, We Need to Talk

In a recent post about conventions, I added a note about gender bias in the gaming community. It was a little thing, just a “hey, guys, stop assuming ladies can’t be gamers too” for the less-evolved crowd, but it turned out to get a much stronger response than anything else on that list. This post is an attempt to expand on the ideas in that post, and in doing so I found I got pretty heated myself – mostly because for every talking point I came up with I could remember some terrible evidence from my own personal experience, or which was shared with me by the ladies I know. And so I broke my normal guideline about profanity on this blog, because I think sometimes there is no polite way to express a certain measure of outrage, so I hope you bear that in mind as you read.

Let me also make a quick note for clarity: While I do address the geek community in general at points, in terms of specifics I’m addressing gamers for the most part, as that is the specific geek subculture that I have the most experience with on the whole. Likewise, when discussing conventions, I’m primarily talking about gaming cons, though I’ve spent enough time at literary, comic and entertainment cons that I think many of my points apply to those venues as well. OK! Here goes.

The Ladies Have Always Been Here (So Act Like It)

I’ve been a gamer for a long time. Not as long as some, no doubt, but as a percentage of my life it’s higher than most. I started playing tabletop rpgs when I was in first grade, and I’m in my mid-30s now. I literally have trouble remembering a time in my life when I wasn’t reading one game book or another. So while I may not be able to wax nostalgic about the glory days when the only way you got to play D&D was by picking up the original big red box – or by hanging out with Gary and Dave personally, or whatever – I do have a pretty good vertical slice of what gaming’s been like in my lifetime. And you know what? When I was a kid, it really was largely a boys’ club, no question. Yes, there were lady gamers, but they were a tiny minority. I knew two, for example, as compared to the dozen or more guy gamers I knew back then.

Then, around the time I turned 14 or so – and started playing more White Wolf games and less D&D, if you want an interesting correlation/causation possibility to ponder – suddenly there were a lot of girls in my gaming group. When we organized our first high school larp, the ratio was just about even, and while the ratio still fluctuates wildly depending on which gaming subgenre you happen to be into, it has slowly but steadily improved since then. For instance, miniatures wargaming still tends to be a very heavily male group, while larp is much more co-ed, as is tabletop gaming.

And just to be clear? I turned 14 two decades ago. 

Now, I’m not saying that everything is peachy keen just yet, and I fully recognize that this is my impression as opposed to sociological data, but it’s still significant. It’s been fashionable in mainstream media outlets to talk about women in geekdom and gaming as though it was something new, when any gamer could tell you this simply isn’t so. Instead, I suspect it’s more like “cultural critical mass” is being mistaken for “new arrivals” – that is, that there are enough women in these cultures willing to speak up about some of their inequities that they’re making headlines. Or to put it more plainly, there are now enough women who are tired of being told to put up with the same stupid sexist bullshit and are speaking up about it that they can’t be easily marginalized or ignored as they might have been in the past.

But seriously, guys, stop acting like you stepped out to the garage to get more Mountain Dew and came back to find girls where there had been no girls before. They’ve been here for a long time now, and pretending like they’re some sort of new phenomenon is equal parts patronizing and unproductive. It’s a way of avoiding dealing with gender issues by pretending they’re something new and unexpected, when in reality they’ve been around for a while and there was simply a lot of subcultural inertia holding them back. Quit it.

… You Do Realize That You’re Not Entitled to the Women You See, Right?

OK, let me make one thing clear: I’m not slamming anyone who earns some money working a convention, whether it’s in costume or otherwise. A job’s a job, especially in this economy, and I’m not gonna judge someone who decides they wouldn’t mind earning some extra scratch handing out flyers or walking around dressed as a Romulan or Red Sonja. And I’m not so naive that I don’t understand the notion of “sex sells” and its utility in the advertising world. That said … come on, people. We can do better than this. We have to do better than this. Because this shit is embarrassing.

Geek culture prides itself on being the smartest guy in the room, on being progressive and forward-thinking, and yet at every single one of the conventions I’ve been at in my lifetime, I’ve heard or seen some guy be absolutely disgusting about so-called booth babes.  It’s so prevalent that most guys don’t even notice it unless they specifically tune their frequency for it – though I guarantee you, the ladies walking with you hear it every time. (That there aren’t more “Dozens Missing, Believed Castrated As Lady Gamer Snaps After 1,517th Boob Joke In GenCon Spree” headlines is a testament to their enduring patience.)  And even worse, a lot of the guys at these cons not only expect to be greeted with an array of nearly-nude female flesh for their camera phone gratification, they’re completely unembarrassed about the kind of entitled asshole behavior it brings out in them.  They leer, they “accidentally” cop a feel while setting up a photo, they make crude jokes and sexist comments as though the woman wasn’t even there.  I once heard a guy loudly talk to his friend in clinical and exhaustive detail about everything that was right (and wrong) with the body of a girl he’d just cuddled up with for a photo at a publisher’s booth … while the woman was maybe three feet away, trying her best to smile and ignore it.  It was honestly sickening, but what was even worse was what she said when I got to the head of the line and blurted out an apology on behalf of my gender: “It’s OK, I hear that sort of thing all the time.”

No. Not just no, but fuck no.

We can do better than this, or at the very least, we have to try. I’m not so naive to think that we’ll be able to de-sexualize our advertising, but shit, can we at least agree that we’ll call people on it when they’re creepy assholes about it? I don’t think that’s too much to ask. I know I wish I had the nerve to say something to that con troll years ago, and as penance I’m trying not to let that shit slide in the future. I know that some folks out there will immediately respond “this is just the way conventions work no one’s forcing them to do it” – to which my response is, and that’s supposed to make it better how, exactly? Because I can’t be the only one who finds it disgusting that geek cons still feel like they must pander to the boys in the crowd with the same level of discourse as bikini girls at boat shows. Or worse, that the bad behavior of said boys is then supposedly excused by the fact that companies are using booth babes in the first place. “If they didn’t want us to look they wouldn’t have them in the first place” is about as much of an excuse for being an asshole to booth babes as saying it was OK to steal because they left the tip jar right out on the counter where anyone could grab it. Just because you can see something doesn’t mean that it’s yours.

And for the guys who immediately jump on the “you’re just gay/a prude/kissing up to feminists” responses to this notion, respectfully, shut the hell up. It is not unreasonable to expect y’all to behave like human beings. That’s not gay, or straight, or sex-positive, or prudish, or even particularly feminist – it’s called being decent and respectful to your fellow human beings. Just because your culture passively let you get away with this behavior for a while does not mean that it’s right, and it sure as hell does not guarantee you the ability to continue doing it in the future.

There Are No Gatekeepers, Mr. Clortho, and You’re Not the Goddamned Keymaster

Over the past year or so the idea of the “fake geek girl” – and backlash against the notion of labeling people as such – has gotten a lot of attention. If you missed it, somehow, it can be summed up as follows: There’s actually a notion out there that some girls you find at gaming and entertainment conventions are “faking it”, that they’re not Real Geeks at all, they’re just there so … hell, I dunno, exactly. The actual accusations are as muddled as  Mushmouth on mescaline, ranging from crass marketing ploys to trolling to trying to pick up unsuspecting geek boys (… to do what, exactly? de-nerdify them with evil mainstream vagina powers?), but whatever they’re up to, it’s definitely Something Bad, these defensive guys can all agree. So watch out, geeks, because that cute girl in the “So Say We All” t-shirt you met at SDCC is probably just a hooker your friends hired to take your coveted viriginity!*

The notion is as obviously wrong as it is goddamn absurd, of course. Sure, a lot of people working conventions aren’t actually into the subject matter – going places and doing things you aren’t really interested in is the definition of having a job for a lot of people. (And a lot of them put up with way too much shit because of it, if you caught the booth babe section earlier.) And sure, some of the ladies who describe themselves as geeks or gamers might not have the history that you feel sufficient to have earned that title … but, and I mean this with all the love and respect in the world, who gives a fuck what you consider worthy? You, and if you’re lucky, maybe a couple friends. That’s it. Stop mistaking your personal standards for scientific constants. Because there’s always a bigger fish in the geek sea, someone who knows a lot more than you about something you like to think you’re an authority on, and if you ask them about it you will find out just what kind of sad, sorry judge of human beings you’ve really been.

Honestly, the debate over fake geek girls reminds me a lot of the endless discussions about “poser punks” back during my days in the hardcore scene. You see, according to a number of angry self-appointed punk rock authorities, there are an awful lot of “poser punks” in the scene who just like to dress up in the style and pretend to like the music, but who aren’t Real Punks and therefore don’t know What It’s All About. (Sound familiar?) How to spot these wannabes was a subject of much intense discussion, of course. I remember one supposed authority setting out some very specific advisories, like a poser punk wouldn’t know who people like the Dead Boys or GG Allin were, or that they’d bought some of their gear at that notorious poser store Hot Topic, or that they hadn’t been to any shows in church basements or dive bars like real punks attended. All of which is total bullshit, of course. Plenty of punks have never listened to the Dead Boys, they can buy clothing from wherever the hell they want, and last I checked most of us didn’t actually like going to shitty and dangerous places to see shows, so why the hell would we make it a requirement? Most telling of all, I remember going to see Rancid when I was in college, and standing near the back of the crowd in my Operation Ivy shirt I unwisely remarked about how a lot of the “kids” there wouldn’t know why I was wearing my shirt to a Rancid show. A much older punk, who looked like the CBGB’s bathroom floor in human form except not as well maintained, heard my snide comment and took my head off about how all us asshole kids were ruining his scene, and how he hadn’t seen a real punk show worthy of the name since about 1988. It was a humbling moment, and one I’ve not forgotten – if you think you’re a gatekeeper for a whole scene, think again.

The most common and yet insidious way that this phenomenon is expressed in geek culture is “the quiz” – when a guy meets another guy at a convention, he automatically assumes that guy is as into it as he is and the two start chatting happily about their mutual interests. By contrast, a lot of guys still haven’t accepted the notion that there are ladies in their hobbies as well, and so when they meet they quiz them, sometimes subtly but often not, asking questions in an attempt to determine if the woman is a Real Geek like them. Most of the time, of course, they pick the most obscure or heavily bias-laden questions they can think of, so that when the lady doesn’t answer with exactly the response they wanted they can dismiss her as a fake and feel secure in their authority and their fandom.

Because that’s what it comes down to for a lot of insecure geek guys – they feel put upon because deep down one of the reasons they got into their hobby is often that it comfortably insulated them from the gender politics of middle school and high school, but now they feel that women are invading their territory, and so they lash out in any way they can. Which is doubly sad because there is no One True Authority, not in gaming, not in comics, not in anything geek related. I mean, I guess we could come up with some sort of all-purpose Geek Entertainment and Educational Knowledge Exam (GEEKE, pronounced “geeky”) , and make everyone take it before they’re allowed to register for Comic Con or host a larp, but really, how dumb is that? And yet we let people get away with a personal version of it all the time. And it needs to stop.

Threatening Rape Is Not Just “Trash Talk”

There’s been a fair amount of coverage lately about what women endure on gaming networks like Xbox Live and PSN, not to mention MMOs and other online gaming experiences – as soon as their gender is discovered, they receive a barrage of crude pickup attempts and pornographic images/requests, or are called sluts and whores and urged to “get raped”, and called thin-skinned and worse if they can’t handle it. “Trash talk is a part of gaming,” these boys say. “If you can’t handle it, you shouldn’t play.” They’re not wrong about one part of that statement – yes, trash talk is part of gaming. Always has been, always will be. But there’s a difference between mocking an opponent’s gameplay and simply spouting a litany of racist, sexist and/or homophobic language into a microphone. That’s not a matter of being prudish, that’s simple linguistics.

To paraphrase the superb Extra Credits series, who addressed this problem very eloquently some time back, the problem is right now that we’ve given the idiots the megaphone. So naturally they’re shouting into it. We need to turn the culture around, and while I’ll let folks like EC tackle the difficulties of doing so on online gaming platforms, we can do a lot to shut down this bullshit in our gaming groups and at our geek events. So the next time you hear someone talking about “raping the other team” in TF2 or how “the NPCs just totally raped us” at your larp, I recommend that you call that person on their bullshit. Chances are if they’re a decent person they’ll just apologize and not do it again, but if they object, I’ve anticipated some of the common arguments for you:

* “Freedom of speech!” BZZT. Sorry, wrong. The First Amendment only says the government can’t stomp on your speech. It says nothing about what’s allowed on corporate-owned gaming networks, or at public gaming cons, or at your local larp. Also, you are specifically not protected from the consequences of your language.  You are free to threaten people all you like, but they are just as free to call the cops on you for it, and guess who’s punished for it?

* “I didn’t mean anything by it! Chill out!” OK, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt – but if it’s really not such a big deal, pick a different topic. Rape hits home with a lot more women – and men, for the record – than you know. Would you make a suicide joke to someone you know has suffered through family or friends committing suicide? No? So how about leaving out a topic that many people have only too much history with in their lives?

* “But what’s so different about threatening rape? Lots of guys say they’ll kill each other and don’t mean it!” If you ever needed an example of male privilege, you could pretty much just copy/paste these sentences into the dictionary. Let me try to keep it short, for those out there who don’t get it. Most of us were bullied at one time or another, and if so, you know the difference between a friend joking about kicking your ass as opposed to a bully really threatening to do it. We know one party isn’t a threat, but the other? Different story. Now imagine a total stranger bumps into and promptly threatens to beat you up – are you going to assume they’re kidding? Or, for safety’s sake, are you likely to take them just a little more seriously, just in case? Of course you are. Now throw in the fact that rape is not nearly the remote threat that murder is, especially for women, and you begin to understand the problem. So stop.

Oh, and Please Stop Assuming Women at Boffer Larps Can’t Fight As Well As You Can

This is a pet peeve of mine, but while we’re on the subject, guys, seriously, stop being so freaking clueless when it comes to women who can fight. I’ve been fighting at boffer larps for more than a decade now, and let me tell you, it is just plain sad to see how often the guys there just reflexively shoulder women out of the way when it comes to arranging shield walls, picking combat patrols and otherwise  throwing down. What’s worse is that many of you don’t even seem to notice you’re doing it, you just unconsciously leave them out of the thick of things. So speaking as the husband of a Markland heavy fighter and all-around badass, who is also friends with many other badass larper ladies, please stop embarrassing yourselves. Watch someone fight and judge them on that, not anything else. And if you don’t think you have this prejudice, check your circuits, son, you’re getting bad signals – even I still struggle with this one from time to time and I most certainly know better.

A Final Word for the Guys

I know it seems like I’m on the warpath for a lot of this post, and let’s not kid each other, in many ways I am. I’m sad, and ashamed, and more than a little pissed off by some of the standards that this scene considers acceptable, and I want to help change them. And I know that a lot of you out there probably read sections of it and thought to yourselves, “That’s a pretty big generalization – that’s not true of me.” And I hope – I know – that’s the case for a lot of you. I painted with a pretty broad brush, and I know that gets some paint on the good guys as well as the bad. For that, I apologize. But the best way we can prove these are generalizations, and not true of all geek and gamer guys, is by living up to a higher standard. Not just by not being sexist ourselves, but by calling other guys on it when they try to pull some chauvinist bullshit, whether it’s making a rape reference in an online game, or groping a booth babe, or pushing the women aside when it’s time to stand shoulder to shoulder at a boffer larp. Don’t get me wrong, either – this isn’t about saving the ladies from wicked sexists. We don’t need more white knight bullshit clouding the issue. This is just about us looking at things that are awful and unfair and disgusting, and saying, “Fuck that, it stops here” and really meaning it. We can do it. I know we can. We have to.

Or in the words of John Custer to his son Jesse, from the incredible comic Preacher:
You gotta be one of the good guys, son, ’cause there’s way too many of the bad.

*Because of course you’re a virgin, nerd! And yes, that is also the plot of an episode of Veronica Mars. Well spotted, marshmellow, well spotted.

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Table Manners is a new commentary and criticism series for gamers and their own little corner of geek culture. Like what you read? Enjoy larping in particular? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tags to read a different semi-regular advice series for larpers of all kinds. You can also follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, and subscribe to the blog to stay in the loop about future updates! 


It Was the Last of Us, It Was the Best of Us

Before I get started, I wanted to make it perfectly clear – this post is designated as a major spoiler zone. If you are playing but have not finished The Last of Us, or if you intend to play it in the future and don’t want the ending spoiled ahead of time, then turn away and come back to this post later on down the line. Seriously. Normally the last thing I want to do is turn away readers, but when it comes to spoiling the hard work and superb storytelling that the Naughty Dog team put into this classic, you really don’t want to cheat yourself.

For those of you who have played it all the way through, feel free to read ahead and enjoy. For those of you who haven’t played it or finished it, but also don’t care about spoilers and want to read on anyway, here’s a brief overview of the premise and some setting details:

The Last of Us follows two characters, Joel and Ellie, as they travel across an America ravaged by 20 years of battling an apocalyptic fungal infection. Joel, a grizzled smuggler, lived through the initial terror of the outbreak but lost his family in the process; Ellie, a young teenager, has only ever known a world of quarantine zones, rationing, and martial law. The story begins during a hot Boston summer and proceeds to go a full year round as the two travel cross-country on an urgent mission, fighting zealous soldiers, desperate bandits, and the hideously warped infected as they go. Supplies and ammo are always low, trust is rare and dangerous, and even the two protagonists have a rocky relationship that frequently flares up into conflict. And unlike a lot of post-apocalyptic games where you simply wade in and blaze away, you’re frequently forced to sneak and plan to survive, not to mention improvise all manner of nasty surprises (like duct taping broken scissor blades to a baseball bat). It’s a harsh world and the game pulls no punches about it, yet for all the rough violence and hard choices, the content doesn’t feel forced or exploitative. When Joel tortures someone for information, there’s no cheap sadistic thrill for the audience like you might find in a GTA-style game, only a sick and sobering realization of what needs to be done to survive in this world.

OK. I think that about covers it. Let me just get one more warning out my system to make sure everyone knows what’s coming:

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WARNING! WARNING! HUGE

HONKIN’ SPOILERS AHEAD!
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So, I finally finished The Last of Us. I’m not quite sure how I feel about it, honestly, but I mean that in a good way, the way I believe was intended by the design team. Joel’s decision to “save” Ellie despite the fact that her sacrifice might mean the salvation of humanity was a choice I honestly did not see coming, but which made perfect sense given his actions up to that point. It’s been established that he’s no revolutionary, and doesn’t really care about the world at large or the future of the human race in general; at the outset, he doesn’t seem to care for much at all except survival.

Don’t get me wrong, we can see his affection for Ellie coming a long way off, given his history, but it still doesn’t feel forced – I like his reaction to her killing the man in the hotel lobby for that reason, the first kill we see her make onscreen. We expect him to give her a grudging thanks for saving his life, and he doesn’t, and they fight about it for a while, and their relationship feels more real because of it. (Elizabeth’s “wrench moment” in BioShock Infinite felt much the same way to me.) But we figure that by the end of the game, it’s going to be a father/daughter sort of bond, an affectionate sort of connection that makes both of them feel better about the world and their place in it. Ellie replaces her lost parents – one of them, anyway -and Joel replaces his lost daughter. Very neat, very poetic, and we’ve seen it all before in various incarnations.

And that’s the core of the matter when I consider how I feel about how the game ended. I’ve seen a fair amount of hate for the ending here and there online, and I’m pretty sure I know why. It’s not a comfortable ending. We see a lot of “what is the life of one versus the life of the many” decisions in video game endings, but we’re accustomed to either receiving a miracle at the 11th hour that allows us to avoid making the choice after all, or our protagonist makes the hard call themselves and we can at least feel noble about it (see BioShock Infinite, Mass Effect 3). Either way, though, it fulfills our expectations – whether it’s a last minute reprieve or a stoic farewell, we’re familiar with it. It’s safe. It’s expected. Doesn’t mean it’s bad, either, by the way, but it’s normal. We get it.

In this case, though, there’s no magic cure-all to save us at the last second, and more importantly, there’s very little nobility in Joel’s decision. Maureen says it directly, that Ellie would want to sacrifice herself if it meant finding a cure and saving everyone, and Joel doesn’t bother to deny it because we know she’s right. Everything we’ve seen about Ellie up to that point says that’s probably true – I mean, she wouldn’t leap to be a martyr, she’s too cynical for that, but if it meant a real chance at saving humanity I don’t doubt for a second that she’d do it. But Joel can’t accept losing her, and suddenly the cute father/daughter relationship we’ve been building up in our heads for most of the game takes a very grim turn. We often say that parents would do anything for their kids, but we don’t often examine the darker implications of that statement. Joel doesn’t care what Ellie would want, or what is best for the world at large – he simply can’t handle losing another daughter, and so he puts his needs above those of literally every other human being on the planet.

I think it’s also important and amazing that the design team didn’t villify the Fireflies at the end. They could easily have done so, ramped up factors like callousness and brutality in order to make us root for Joel taking Ellie away, but they didn’t. And that’s crucial, because that would have been a major cop-out, an excuse to let us feel better about the ending by making it a simple “good guys/bad guys” dynamic. Instead, they twist the knife a bit more, at least if you find the recorders that are scattered around the final stages – we hear about the loss and struggles of the Fireflies as they came west, we hear Maureen agonizing over the decision to take Ellie’s life, we hear the researchers talking about the promise of the cure as a real thing and not simply a hypothetical.

There’s a great quote from near the end of The Wire, when one of the main characters, Detective Jimmy McNulty, is trying to explain what went wrong during an investigation in the final season. I won’t spoil it, and it’s complicated besides, but let’s just say that he starts coloring outside the lines in order to try to put a bad guy in jail, and things most definitely do not turn out as he hoped. Desperate to justify his actions, he says to the woman he’s seeing: “You start to tell the story, you think you’re the hero, and then when you get done talking…” And he just trails off, because he realizes that he’s not the hero, and maybe he never was, and maybe there just aren’t heroes, not like we’re brought up to believe in anyway. Maybe life is just people doing things to get what they want, and we label it all later.

In that moment he has much the same realization that the audience does – that we’ve been rooting for him because we’re conditioned by movies and TV to cheer for “loose cannon” police officers who break the rules to get results, but when we stop and think about what that would really mean in real life, it’s not that noble or that simple. That’s my interpretation of the scene, anyway, but I think it’s a fair one.

And that’s exactly what the end of The Last of Us made me feel like. Like I’d conned myself into thinking I was watching a hero’s story, when in reality – looking back over everything Joel says and does throughout the game – it’s pretty clear that he’s not really a hero. Anti-hero, maybe, and a pretty damn dark one at that. He does some good things, maybe even some selfless things (depending on how you look at his relationship with Ellie), but he also does a lot of pretty awful things too, and not all of them strictly necessary. You can argue that he’s a product of his world, and I think that’s a fair assessment, but the ending shocks into remembering exactly what that means.

Like cheering for McNulty in The Wire only to realize how screwed up some of those assumptions are in the light of day, The Last of Us sets us up to cheer for an outsider hero and his bond with a spunky surrogate child, only to rip away the easy ending and remind us exactly what’s really going on in this world we’ve been playing in. Looking back, the evidence is all there, we just chose to see it differently because that’s how most games would spin it. But taken on its own, Joel’s brutal choice really shouldn’t have surprised anyone.

And I think that’s pretty damn amazing.


Table Manners: Or, How Not to Be a Convention Troll

In honor of Dexcon this weekend, where hundreds of gamers are coming together for a weekend of dice rolling and debauchery, I thought I’d share a few little tips to help everyone make the most of their con (and maybe help break some bad habits at the table before they get started):

1) We’re All Nerds Here
Dystopia Rising creator Michael Pucci likes to open his larp sessions with some variation on the following advice: “Look around you. We’re all nerds! Everyone is here because they’re a geek who loves gaming! Enjoy it!” The message goes double for gaming cons: Leave the hatin’ at home, and focus on the fun instead. Try new things, play new games with new people, maybe learn some new tricks or even a new way of looking at an old game you never would have considered before. We’re all nerds. Embrace it.

2) Stay On Target
Most convention games have between 4-6 hours to hand out characters, explain the rules (for new folks), provide relevant background/setting material to set up the scenario and then actually play out a full, entertaining story, usually with a group of strangers who’ve never gamed together before. That’s a hell of challenge. So do your GM a favor and try to stay focused. Don’t be a humorless jerk about it, of course, but those long-winded war stories from other games can probably wait for the bar afterward, you probably don’t need to keep dropping character to talk about your other convention larps, and that game of Angry Birds on your iPad will still love you even if you don’t play for a few hours. You’ve only got a short time to play, so dive in!

3) Play Nice with Others
Don’t get me wrong – I know some con games thrive on PvP action. (The “everyone make characters for system X and have a huge gladiator brawl” is a storied con tradition, after all, as are the equally time-honored “let’s all make Evil characters and screw with each other” games.) But there’s a difference between your characters hating and fighting and scheming, and the players being at each others’ throats. Even the harshest PvP games are still games, after all, so the goal is to have fun. Be magnanimous in victory and gracious in defeat, and remember, it’s just a game, so enjoy it, and help everyone else at the table do so the same.

4) Respect the Shower Hour
I know that because of the limited convention time frame, gamers tend to maximize their playing time and minimize other needs like sleeping, eating properly and so on. It’s sort of the nature of the beast, and looking at my schedule for Dexcon right now, I’m no different in that respect.  On top of that I’ll fully admit that I’m no daisy after six hours of larp in a small convention boardroom or five hours packed around a gaming table, and my nutritional plans never seem to quite be as healthy as I’d hope. I’m not going to say that the convention needs to schedule a designated Shower Hour between gaming rounds. (Though, now that I mention it…)  Deodorant, mints, real food, a nap now and then, enough changes of clothes to see you through the weekend and doing battle with shampoo at least once a day – these things not only make you better suited to enjoy the games you’re playing, but your fellow gamers will appreciate it too.   

5) Guys. Seriously.
I hate having to write this one, but some guys need the reminder, so here goes: There are lots of female gamers. I know to some of you it might seem like they just suddenly appeared in the time it took to get another case of Mountain Dew from the garage, but believe it or not, they’ve actually been here for a long time now, and not because their boyfriend dragged them into it. In fact, at a con I’d say it’s pretty safe to assume that any lady you see with a badge and a backpack is there because she’s stoked to throw down in an Apocalypse World, or to see her Space Wolves wreck on some Necrons, or because her Gangrel is gonna slit throats and seize Praxis as soon as the sun goes down. So really, stop reciting rules at them like they don’t know what they’re doing, talking over them during planning sessions, offering unsolicited advice on the “best” move to make every time their turn comes up, quizzing their “cred” like the geek SATs, or worse yet assume that sharing a table and some laughs entitles you to share a hotel room later. It’s sad and obnoxious, and it needs to stop. For all the guys who don’t need this reminder, thank you, keep being awesome, and don’t hesitate to speak up and back up a lady if you see some tool trying to pull this sort of bad behavior. For all the ladies in these hobbies, thanks for coming out despite all the crap and the cavemen and the creepers, not to mention kicking some major ass besides.  All too often we’re still like the short boys hugging the walls at the eighth grade dance, the ones that made you roll your eyes and long for the relative social graces and personal growth of high school guys, but don’t give up on us yet. We’ll catch up to y’all sooner or later, maturity-wise. Promise.

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Table Manners is a new commentary and criticism series for gamers and their own little corner of geek culture. Like what you read? Enjoy larping in particular? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tags to read a different semi-regular advice series for larpers of all kinds. You can also follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, and subscribe to the blog to stay in the loop about future updates! 


Table Manners: Time to Level Up

OK. Deep breath. I’m going to say something that I feel is a little bit overdue:

We geeks really have to get past the notion that we’re cultural outsiders.

Before anyone flies off the handle, let me make two things perfectly clear: I am not saying that geeks don’t get picked on for their hobbies and interests. Sadly I know that there are plenty of kids and more than a few adults who get picked on by classmates and co-workers for knowing what Naruto is, or arguing the merits of Star Wars versus Firefly. Bullies like easy targets, and there’s still plenty in our culture that says “nerds” are their natural prey, as though eighth grade was Wild Kingdom. Strike that. Anyone who’s been to middle school knows that it’s not Wild Kingdom – it’s much, much meaner. Lions can only take down a gazelle once; the gazelle never have to do a history presentation with them two weeks after getting mauled. So no, I’m not saying that geeks aren’t still being bullied for being geeks.

I am also not saying that bad cultural stereotypes don’t exist. Just to pick one of the most egregious genres, look at any of the thousands of police procedurals on the air – the techies and the “brainy” characters are still likely to have glasses, be “quirky” (read: socially awkward), and have hobbies that other “normal” characters make fun of for being too dorky. Venerable ratings juggernaut NCIS, whose writers generally display as much computer savvy as Wilford Brimley yelling drunken obscenities at a ceiling fan, spent a good chunk of time mocking MIT graduate Agent McGee and his fascination with computer games, role-playing and cosplay (not that they know that term). There are exceptions, of course, especially as characters get fleshed out over the run of a series, but on average if you dig back to those early episodes you’re going to see awkward, often-bespectacled geeks spouting jargon that – inevitably – some “down to earth” alpha male type barks at them to translate into “plain English” for everyone to understand. That sort of stereotyping still happens regularly, I know. That’s not in dispute.

No, what I’m trying to say is that we have to let go of the idea – deeply ingrained in many of us – that geek culture is still the weird kid no one wants to talk to at recess. I know it’s hard; sometimes I still can’t believe it myself. Whenever I see something from geek culture splashed across the mainstream, my first reaction is that old one a lot of us nerds grew up with – I don’t trust it. I look around to see if someone’s poking fun at it, or me for liking it, or maybe both. I just can’t accept that maybe a lot of other people, and I mean a lot of other people, might be into what I’m into. I think a lot of geeks know what I’m talking about, especially those in their late 20’s-early 30’s and up, the ones who didn’t grow up with Harry Potter being around their age. (The importance of this distinction will be clearer in a moment.) It’s a habit developed by folks who were used to having what they liked mocked or dismissed, and the “us versus them” mentality it creates is very hard to let go of even many years later.

When I was a kid, many people grudgingly suffered through The Hobbit in school, but it was a far rarer soul who’d braved the grown-up trilogy. Outside my circle of equally geeky friends, being able to rattle off the rosters and relative merits of of X-Men Gold versus X-Men Blue won me no love in the lunchroom, and staying inside to master Ninja Gaiden was definitely not the cool thing to do on a summer day meant for bike riding and pickup basketball. Being a geek felt like being part of a culture at the fringes – almost nobody knew what you liked, much less got what you saw in it, and so you were the caretakers of this little world, its protectors. We were enthusiastic about it in part because no one else cared, so it seemed even more important to pour ourselves into it.

But that world really isn’t there anymore.

Take a look around. I mean, really look. Video games are the highest grossing entertainment industry in the country; the Lord of the Rings trilogy tore up the box office and the Oscars; Game of Thrones is blowing away cable television; Harry Potter gave us a generation of fantasy fans; and instead of having one superhero movie every decade or so, now they’re attracting some serious talent and studios can’t make them fast enough. The average person went from not knowing anything about the Avengers to having opinions about possible roster changes and impending villains in upcoming movies. Geek culture isn’t just for geeks anymore, it seems, much to the confusion and consternation of many of the old guard who are still caught up in that “us versus them” mentality they’ve known for so many years. I mean, we could keep going:

Dr. Who? Huge.
Star Wars? A multi-billion dollar deal.
Star Trek? Rebooted.
Nathan Fillion? Dead sexy.

And all that’s just the tip of a very large iceberg. We have arrived, ladies and gentlemen – in fact we’ve been here for some time. We just can’t bring ourselves to accept it yet. Like the kid on the playground waiting for the bully to turn a “compliment” into another mean joke at our expense, we can’t believe it’s really sincere. Deep down, a lot of us who grew up geek just can’t let go of the notion that our culture is the kid standing alone at the prom,  when in fact just about everyone’s lined up and asking us to dance.

I know what some of you are thinking: “But they sexed up the dwarves in The Hobbit! They  turned Star Wars into a merchandising scheme! The Big Bang Theory makes us all look like jerks and losers!” Underneath all those complaints is a single meta-complaint, the cry of every geek when they see something like the Spider-Man origin retcon in the third movie, the anguish of the inauthentic moment: “THEY’RE NOT GETTING IT RIGHT!” Geek culture and its properties are being picked up faster than ever, but in the process there’s a sense that it’s being co-opted, it’s being hacked apart and dumbed down and so on. Countless posts on countless forums decry the invasion of the mainstream as it grabs up another cherished geek property, and I understand why: It’s scary to have everyone suddenly fall in love with something you like after you’ve been used to no one knowing about it at all. It’s natural to lash out a little, to go into the “I was into it before it was cool” mode and complain about how it will inevitably be butchered.

All I can say to that is, well, of course not all of what is created or recreated in the mainstream will be “right.” (Though, to be fair, a lot of “right” is in the eye of the beholder. Some people like X3, after all, God help the sorry bastards.) As geek culture is brought more and more into the mainstream, there are bound to be missteps and screw-ups and bastardizations and more. It will take a long time before many of those misconceptions are corrected, if some of them ever are; I suspect even Benedict Cumberbatch’s demonic perfection won’t be able to lift the “Trekkie = virgin” stigma that particular fandom carries. And I won’t even talk yet about what my beloved larp hobby looks like to the mainstream media. Let’s just say we have a long way to go and leave it at that.

But geek culture isn’t unique in that. Ask any lawyer how “right” most courtroom dramas are, or see what a real forensic tech thinks of CSI and its many clones. Most football fans and players can name on one hand the really good “football movies” that get the feel of the game right, and let’s not even compare real epsionage work to James Bond’s adventures. Last summer the History channel got ripped, and rightly so in many cases, for “dramatizing” events in its Gettysburg anniversary programming that, oops, turned out not to have happened at all in the real battle. Every culture has its stereotypes in the media, and every culture is done “wrong” by what’s produced about them. If you believe geeks are the only people consistently portrayed in a negative, inaccurate light, have a chat with a member of a motorcycle club sometime.

No, what we’re really missing when we pull back from this culture shift and retreat into the ivory towers of “original fandom”, though, is the chance to guide what’s being brought into the mainstream. This goes beyond voting with our wallets and our ratings, though that’s important too, and focuses on the people around us who are first exposed to things that we’ve known for years. When you reject a new Dr. Who fan for only getting into it when the recent series reboot started, for instance, you’re missing a chance to show those people the charm of the older episodes in all their cheesy, wonderful glory. Push away a person because all they know about Batman is the video games, and how will they ever experience the sheer awesomeness that are classic Batman stories like Arkham AsylumThe Killing Joke, or Year One? Maybe you can’t reach out to everyone in the world who is awed by the Lord of the Rings movies or hooked on HBO’s Game of Thrones and tell them about other wonderful fantasy writers like Joe Abercrombie, MZB, Patrick Rothfuss, Scott Lynch or Mercedes Lackey – but you can tell the new potential fans sitting next to you.

We have to put some of our old demons behind us, folks, and accept that as a culture we’re no longer the outsiders looking in. We’re at the threshold of a brand new culture, one that – with a little bit of our help – can bring some of the wonder and amazement and imagination that we love to people who otherwise might never have experienced it in their lives. As my man Hardison likes to say on Leverage – one of the better portrayals of a geek out there recently, by the way, who not only hacks computers but gets to be witty, get the girl and kick a lot of ass too – this is the Age of the Geek, baby.

It’s about time we stepped back of our self-imposed exile and started leading the way to the culture we want. 

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Table Manners is a new commentary and criticism series for gamers and their own little corner of geek culture. Like what you read? Enjoy larping in particular? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tags to read a different semi-regular advice series for larpers of all kinds. You can also follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, and subscribe to the blog to stay in the loop about future updates! 


“The Lost” Launches – Support A Charity Fiction Anthology!

“Santa, will you help me get my virginity back?” – from “The End of Hungry Santa”, a brand new story featured in The Lost

Do you like helping worthy charities? Do you like awesome short fiction? Did you ever wish you could support both AT THE SAME TIME? Then look no further! Check out the The Lost, an anthology of short stories about people who have fallen through the cracks and into the strange and terrifying world that exists just beneath our notice. Some tales are full of urban fantasy, some much closer to reality, but all of them will grab you.

Proceeds will benefit City Harvest, a charity doing genuine good work in NYC. From the great minds at Galileo Games, Brennan Taylor and J.R. Blackwell, and based on Jeff Himmelman’s fantastic Kingdom of Nothing RPG (though you’ll enjoy it just fine even if you haven’t played that), The Lost features nine stories of this other world by the likes of Shoshana Kessock, Sarah Newton, Meg Jayanth, Stephen D Rogers and yours truly.

For my part, writing “The End of Hungry Santa” was a surprisingly moving experience. I’ve long been a fan of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, not to mention I really enjoyed playing Kingdom of Nothing, so I jumped at a chance to work this anthology. I started off with kind of a funny concept – “What if there was this skinny old dude with a big bushy beard called Hungry Santa?” – and began working from there, adding all sorts of strange characters to his world as he muddled about on his questionable quest to find Saint Alice’s missing virginity. I didn’t intend it to be a farce, exactly, but there was definitely a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor in the early going. A funny thing happened as I went on, however. I really began to care about Hungry Santa and his world, and the more I cared, the more real it became, the more I really wanted this poor screwed-up guy to finally do the right thing and maybe find some peace along the way. It’s not that it became humorless – far from it – but the humor changed as I came to sympathize with him more and more. When I was writing the final scenes, my wife looked over and was surprised to see me getting really choked up – I was genuinely proud of the man, doomed as he was, and the choices he made. And I hope you find him just as compelling.

So check it out, folks, you won’t be disappointed and you’ll help do some real good in this hungry season.

Link Party!
Here’s the link for the IndieGoGo drive itself: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/272507/
Here’s the link for City Harvest, if you want to check them out: http://www.cityharvest.org/
Here’s the link for Kingdom of Nothinghttp://galileogames.com/kingdom-of-nothing/

And check out the gorgeous cover, the art graciously donated by Jeff Himmelman:
lostcoverfinal_front


Fight Music

One of the highlights of working in academia is the privilege of teaching creative writing classes. One of the first assignments I usually give is something I call “Artistic DNA”, where I ask students to list the 10 biggest creative influences in their lives. It can be stuff from the distant past all the way up to something that blew their mind the night before, so long as it really gets their heart pumping. I ask them to write 2-3 sentences explaining how they encountered that source, what about it inspires them, you name it. For the record, I usually return the favor – after all, if I know where they’re coming from, it’s only fair for them to hear what drives me too!

After a little while, though, I noticed a curious trend – students almost never listed any rappers or hip-hop groups as influences, or if they did, half of their write-up consisted of apologizing for it. Students who didn’t blink about writing up their love for torture porn horror franchises, sex-saturated HBO shows or video games with more violence than a couple of World Wars, nevertheless felt compelled to do the written equivalent of starting at their toes and muttering apologies. And this is an assignment I give out on the first or second day, so other than my basic appearance – youngish, white & nerdy, thankyewverymuch – I don’t think I’ve given them any reason to believe I’d disapprove of rap or hip-hop.

What broke my heart the most about it was that I’ve seen a number of talented poets, not to mention students with definite poetic potential, yet very few of them are familiar with even a handful of hip-hop artists, aside from what they’re aware of as part of larger popular culture anyway. Obviously, knowledge of hip-hop or any particular musical discipline isn’t a requirement for being a good poet – though the idea of Emily Dickinson throwing down with John Donne in a freestyle battle has definite appeal – but it seems like a particularly terrible loss that a lot of students are embarrassed to even talk about it, let alone admit that they might enjoy it. Especially with poets, who are writing in the middle of another incredibly vital, experimental and explosive phase in the history of the discipline. Because honestly? Some of the best poets working today do it from behind a mic, backed by a beat.

Crazy, right? But you’d be hard-pressed to top a lot of rappers when it comes to an intuitive understanding of manipulating words and sounds, playing with complex schemes of rhymes and repetitions, making smart references and allusions, and otherwise displaying elements of – wait for it – great poetry. Whether or not you love the subject matter – and if you think hip-hop is all gangsta rap or glorification of material excess, hit me up and I’ll hook you up with some serious thinkers who happen to have their lectures on records – it’s hard to argue with the fact that I’d take a talent like Eminem or Nas over a lot of other modern poets without hesitation or apology.

Uh oh. I said the “E” word.

I remember the first time I mentioned in class that I listen to Eminem. I got a lot of blank looks – ok, I get those sometimes anyway – and some actual, no fooling, jaw dropping. It prompted a great discussion, where we talked about separating the artist from the work, or understanding the enjoying an artist doesn’t mean that you endorse all of their personal beliefs. Just in case anyone is unclear, though, let me state it again for the record: I’ve never followed Eminem’s personal life, and there are things in his lyrics I definitely don’t support: drug use, homophobia, and misogyny, just to start. But I watch a lot of Scorcese movies too, and it doesn’t mean I approve of the Mafia or the brutal violence endemic to their culture. And I wouldn’t let my young cousins listen to a lot of his stuff, at least until  they were old enough to separate fiction from reality. (See? Apparently even I’m not immune to some need to make apologies when this subject comes up.) Which is ridiculous, because if you sit back and listen to Eminem, just hear the way he weaves his words, finds rhymes in unlikely places and drops allusions from way out of left field, you realize a simple truth:

The kid is a damn fine poet.

That’s it. There’s really not much else to say, except perhaps to add he’s certainly not the only one. I think it’s a shame that there’s such an odd stigma on it, especially considering its popularity- students never hesitate to list other styles of music, or really any other form of entertainment, but rap and hip-hop exist in this curious hole in the world. They love listening to it, but feel it will somehow diminish their standing to admit it, when in actuality it’s like any other art form, with plenty to teach you if you listen. Sure, like any art form it has its vapid practitioners, but there’s a lot of it worth fighting for. Go ahead. Take a listen.


7 Games That Changed Your Life

So when gamers get together, aside from war stories getting told and retold, another topic that often comes up are the games that really had an impact on you, the sytems and settings that changed the way you viewed the hobby.  I’m not always talking about your favorite games or even the best games, though they can certainly be those too – I’m just talking about the game-changers, the ones that made you sit up and take notice, fall in love with a style of gaming you hadn’t tried before or even re-examine the way you already played.

These are mine, in a very rough semblance of order – feel free to share yours, with or without the commentary!

#7 - Arkham Horror

It was tough to pick a single game line from Fantasy Flight, but when in doubt, always side with Cthulu. Simply put, I’ve never been a huge board game fan, and even when I enjoy a well-designed game like Settlers or some of the Risk variants, my interest level is generally low at best. Then I tried Arkham Horror, and realized that board games had grown the hell up while I was away. I call it “rpg-lite” for the level of character, detail and atmosphere they put into the game, but that’s really doing it a disservice, implying that it’s trying to be an rpg when in fact it’s not trying to be anything but a stellar board game. You can play it seriously, you can play it casually, you can play it dozens of times and not have two games closely resemble each other – truly a masterpiece of design. I quickly went from saying no thanks to board games to stacking my shelves with Arkham, Descent, Game of Thrones, Battlestar (whose loyalty mechanic deserves its own special mention for adding a wicked layer of trust and doubt to board gaming), The Adventurers and more. Board games grew up while I was away, and I’m glad that I finally caught on.

#6 - Pathfinder

In truth, this should be a split decision with the crew that did the original D&D 3.0 reboot, because without them there would be no Pathfinder to praise. So let me give them their props, then go on to say that the Pathfinder team has taken the revolution they started and given it some new fins, fresh chrome, a nitrous tank, and a jet engine. Because man, this system roars. Like many people my age – though not nearly so many as now, or even as started gaming 10 years ago – I began my journey in roleplaying games with Dungeons & Dragons, AD&D in fact. Over the years, though, I discovered other games with different, simpler systems, games that stressed story and setting as much or more than rules and mechanics. D&D fell out of fashion, and while 3.0 did rekindle interest briefly, it soon fell back into the trap that AD&D had, churning out tons of books until you were drowning in paper. (This may yet happen to Pathfinder, but shh, I’m enjoying the honeymoon.) So when I first heard about Pathfinder, I admit, I scoffed a bit. I’ve played dozens of systems, done LARP, done indie games all about story – I didn’t think “plain old D&D” would ever catch my eye again. But let me tell you, for someone who started out with D&D, reading Pathfinder is like coming home years later and finding out that your high school crush is still hot. And single. And wants to go out for a beer before doing freaky sex things that are illegal in five states. What’s not to love? Now hand me my d12, my inish just came up and daddy’s got some rabid baboons to kill.

#5 – Mystic Realms

I’ll admit it, there was a time in high school when – already a devoted White Wolf LARPer, mind you – my friends and I were driving through the Pine Barrens on our way to the shore. One of my friends casually mentioned that some people actually played “like, live D&D or something” at camps out in the woods, and the car erupted in laughter. What did they do, we snickered, yell “Fireball!” while hitting each other with He-Man swords from Toys ‘R Us? And what kind of loser dresses up as a goblin and fights nerds in the wood, anyway? I mean, we were gamers, but there was a limit, you know? Well, as a lot of this list proves, I do enjoy a tasty dish of cooked crow, and I certainly enjoyed a heaping portion years later when I tried Mystic Realms, my first-ever boffer LARP in what would become a long and nearly unbroken line of such games.  My brother and I drove down to an unfamiliar camp and played a whole weekend, surrounded mostly by strangers (as the friends that invited us happened to be running that weekend), running around in the woods battling all manner of things, getting killed a half-dozen times each, and loving every second of it. While this game has changed considerably since then, at the time the rules were everything you’d want – but only rarely see – in live combat, simple and quick and evocative. Roleplaying was incorporated into them, rather than added on, and the whole system was designed to eliminate narration and keep the action moving. I was hooked. Not only did I drag most of my friends in with me over the next year or two, but it gave me a whole different perspective on a lot of tabletop games as well – suddenly the idea of my D&D character effortlessly fighting six enemies at once became laughable, and the idea that a torch could light a large easily dismissed. Not to mention the excitement of really being put to the test, weapon to weapon, staying silent and hidden to sneak around, you name it. It’s a rush, and I’ve never really shaken the addiction.

#4 – Mage: The Ascension

When I first read Mage, I had never played anything but AD&D and West End Games’ glorious old Star Wars tabletop system, and let me tell you, I was unprepared for the awesome. My brother had started playing Vampire, so I’d heard a little bit about White Wolf, and I thought the World of Darkness sounded pretty cool. Mage had just been released, so while we were on vacation I picked it up with precious summer money and started reading it. I soon put it down, though, angry and confused. Where were the lists of spells? Why didn’t they have components? What the hell were “Spheres” and what did they mean, everyone’s magic worked the way they thought it should, because they thought it should? Much as I hate to admit it, I was totally lost. It was magic, but so far out of the cut-and-dried paradigm I’d experienced in the past that I had no frame of reference for it. I might have walked away entirely, except that it was the only book I had with me that vacation, and so I grudgingly picked it back up. Fortunately, this time the magic system “clicked” – everything made sense, and suddenly I got very excited. I realized the freedom they were offering, as well the price to be paid for that freedom, and how great the stories would be that you could tell about those choices. I was hooked, and spell lists have never held quite the same appeal since.

#3 – Dogs In the Vineyard

If I put up much more good stuff about this game, this blog is going to look like a Dogs fan site, but really, reading it for the first time was that much of a fundamental shift. Dogs was my first real exposure to indie games, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. A junior version of one of the big games, perhaps, or someone’s half-baked setting with a dose of barely edited house rules. (I know, I know, what can I say, I was young and foolish!) Instead, I got handed a thermal detonator – compact, polished, and cooly designed to blow you away.  White Wolf had introduced me to gaming that aspired to be Art from time to time, but Dogs actually got into the nuts and bolts of how to make it happen in a big way. For example, I’ve always enjoyed creating characters as a group project, adding bits and pieces to each others’ stories as we go, but a game that actively requires it? (And set a trend for other indie games to do likewise, I might add.) One where the type of family you were raised in wasn’t just fluff, but helped determine who you were in mechanics as well? A setting that’s a masterpiece of minimalism, enough to get you started and get you thinking but never gets in the way? Genius. Add in a conflict mechanic so cool it got its own post a while back, as well as loads of potential moral and ethical conflicts, and you’ve got one hell of a game-changer.

#2 – The Masquerade 

LARP is such a constant presence in my life now that it’s almost hard to remember a time when it wasn’t, but it had to start somewhere, and for me, that was a big box with fake fangs and a big book for a little set of rules. Trashing stereotypical vampire LARPers is pretty much a Goth/geek standby now, especially in the post-Twilight era, but let me tell you, there was indeed a time when this stuff was new, and cool,  and even a little bit subversive. When you felt like part of  your own shadow society, because nobody else had heard of LARP and you had your own secret language. This game, like it or not (and I love it), took LARP from the outermost fringes of geek culture and brought it into the discussion in a big way. And over the years I got to watch it grow from just Vampire to include the whole World of Darkness, going from a hobby enjoyed by a few passionate gamers to several worldwide organizations, inspiring any number of other game systems to try their hand at creating live-action systems. It’s been an amazing journey to watch, both as author and participant. And it all started with a high school game of Masquerade, with all the drama, melodrama, shenanigans and reversals that implies. Not only did it have a big impact on my career as a writer, it made me look at the real world and see a playground there I hadn’t seen since I was very small, and help me see it to this day.
#1 – 7th Sea

I almost don’t know where to begin talking about how this game changed my perspective on gaming. Spending points during creation to add disadvantages to your character? (And making you want to do it?) Earning “Drama Dice” for doing cool stunts or sharing witty one-liners? Dismissing most opponents with simple die rolls, while saving complex rules for the fights that matter? A stat openly named “Panache”? I was blown away. And I haven’t even touched on the world, the easiest non-licensed setting to explain to anyone ever – close enough to our own history to make quick, easy parallels (“Ok, so Montaigne is basically France immediately before the Revolution…”) while still containing enough difference to feel fresh and unique instead of dusty and dated (“… but there’s sorcery and monsters and ancient ruins of a lost civilization.”) 7th Sea was one of the first games where I bought and devoured every supplement, not for new rules or game mechanics (though new Swordsman Schools were always a plus), but just to read the setting material, to see what was happening as the timeline moved forward.  I saw complex world design executed with a light, almost airy touch, inspiring players with an endless array of hooks and suggestions but rarely nailing them down to facts set in stone.  In short, it was big and bright and brilliant and beautiful, and I still love it to this day.

Extremely Honorable Mentions

Houses of the Blooded - Really, I could probably do a whole John Wick list, and this is a truly great game, but I went with the original game of his that sparked my imagination in the end.

InSpectresJared Sorenson is a mad wizard of game design, whose books I wait for like some people follow favorite bands or film directors. I read this about the same time I read Dogs, and they both had a huge impact.

Star Wars (West End Games) - One of the first games I ever played, this is a wonderful example of a system well suited to its setting. It’s a fast, simple mechanic well-suited to the breezy Star Wars universe, and I still love it.


The Art of Dropping Your Guard

When I teach my creative writing course, one of the most important lessons that I try to pass on is the need to open up to a work of art, whether it’s a novel, an album, a television show, a painting, a live performance or whatever else they’re experiencing. I tell them to actively engage, to not just sit back and let it wash over them, but give it their whole attention and not be afraid of feeling a strong reaction.

For some reason, our culture tends to encourage us to experience art from a guarded, even cynical perspective – it’s the equivalent of going to see a stage magician but rather than relaxing in your seat with a smile on your face, instead sitting down in a huff, crossing your arms and barking out “Impress me.” Which makes very little sense when you consider that you’ve paid for your ticket and made the time to see the show – why approach it with such a hostile point of view? Even a “free” medium such as most television isn’t really free, as you’re still investing your time.

The comparison I make is asking my students to think of a time that they tried to show a friend a movie that they loved, one that their friend had never seen before. They sit down to watch the film, but as soon as it starts, their friends starts talking through it, texting constantly, taking phone calls, etc. The frustration they’d feel is exactly what an artist feels when people don’t give a work of art a chance – and that’s really all it is, giving something a chance. Taking the time to let it do its best, and see what happens. If you watch a movie, and I mean really watch it – not multitask with it as background noise – and it doesn’t engage you, then you’ve done everything you’re supposed to as the audience.

Don’t get me wrong, when I say “open” I don’ mean “uncritical” – if you give art your time, and it doesn’t live up to your expectations, it’s fine to express that disappointment. I also don’t advocate giving every work of art the same level of deep analysis – while it’s important to understand why you do/don’t love a work of art, taking apart a Jackie Chan movie the same way you analyze a Truffaut film is doing both of them a bit of a disservice. Over-analysis is as bad as no analysis at all, really, as it sucks out the joy of art just as surely as lack of engagement misses the joy entirely.

But one of the most liberating things I’ve learned over the years is to drop your guard and let art do what it will – make you laugh, make you cry, make you angry, make you think. Rather than sit back with my arms folded and wait for it to impress me, I go to it and encourage it to tell its story. It’s been an amazing transformation.


The Deadbolt Effect

I was talking to some folks about cheating and game design not too long ago, and it was such a fun conversation I figured I’d share some of the conclusions. Basically, it boils down to recognizing three types of people.

1) A small number of people will basically never cheat, even if an easy opportunity presents itself.
2) A large number of people will cheat, but only if it is relatively easy and seems to carry low risk of getting caught.
3) A small number of people will almost always cheat, even if it’s very difficult, time-consuming and/or risky.

You don’t really have to worry about group #1 or group #3 – well, you do have to worry about #3, but only so far as catching them. You won’t be able to deter them, though; no matter how hard you make it for them to cheat, they will try it anyway. (There are many reasons why they are so persistent, but that’s another discussion for another day.) The trick is setting up the rules to make cheating just difficult and/or risky enough to deter group #2, the people who are normally honest but don’t mind taking shortcuts, especially when they see others doing it. Or to put it another way, you need to balance putting in so many safeguards the test becomes impossibly long and complex against having so few that the honest people find themselves wondering why they didn’t just take a few shortcuts. It’s what security experts call the “deadbolt effect” – you don’t need a deadbolt to keep out honest people, and it won’t stop determined criminals either. But it will deter casual snooping, amateur criminals and other crimes of opportunity.

One of the things that undermines a lot of good game design is the designers feel they have to go beyond deadbolts and install a full-on laser grid. They work endlessly to plug loopholes, scale back rules and abilities to avoid abuse, and otherwise make their games as airtight as possible. The problem is that, after a certain point, avoiding abuse starts diminishing the game itself. This is particularly true when it comes to combat, where a lot of games spend so much time trying to close possible cheating problems that they forget the purpose of gaming is fun, not making sure no one can ever possibly abuse it. They underestimate the power of the table, namely, that game groups can and should police their own.

That very notion, in fact, is one of my favorite trends that has emerged in tabletop gaming, especially in the indie field – the idea that rather than design a game to foil cheaters and power gamers, folks should simply design games the way they want them to be, and let groups worry about sending losers and creeps packing. Houses of the Blooded has my personal favorite mechanic for this: Bad Form. Whenever a player tries to manipulate the rules to do things they oughtn’t, the Narrator simply says “Bad Form” and that’s it. No need to argue rules for hours – if it violates the spirit of having fun, just say “Bad Form” and move on. Elegant simplicity.

Don’t get me wrong – I think deterring cheating is still an important element of game design, whether it means trying to plug a loophole or simply calling attention to it so that groups know it might come up during play. But the more people learn the value of the deadbolt effect, the more time we can spend creating awesome games, and the less time we have to devote in trying to discourage jerks from breaking in an rifling our stuff.

Game on!


I Heard It On The Wire …

So, there’s an amazing little show called The Wire.

You may have heard about it.

I come back and revisit it from time to time. It’s one of those very rare series that simply gets better with time and repeated viewings. If you’re not familiar, it’s a series that follows a web of criminals, police and civilians in Baltimore. It begins with a single police unit investigating a drug operation in the west Baltimore slums, and grows organically outward from there over five seasons, touching on a lot of areas of the city: the slums, the port, the schools, the paper, the mayor’s office at city hall, you name it. You can feel the love that David Simon has for his city, but also the hurt and outrage that he feels over what has happened to it, the waste and corruption that he sees sinking it. Characters come and go, but one of the most impressive things about the show is the fact that despite the large and shifting cast, it never loses its footing, never feels like it’s casting about or trying to reinvent itself.

And the writing. Sweet mercy, the writing.

The dialogue snaps and pops hotter than bacon frying, and the plots wander as slyly as burglars casing a neighborhood, looking natural but constantly scheming under the surface. Things rarely play out quite the way you expect, but don’t go for sensation, cheap twists or other lazy tricks. Instead, the surprises come from the fact that the series almost never follows television conventions – things unfold more or less as they do in real life, which makes them even stranger and more powerful. It’s a testament to trusting your material, really, and letting it take you where it will, instead of forcing it to take some more unnatural shapes. It manages to employ a lot of moral ambiguity without falling into cynicism or resorting to stage-y ethical conflicts.  You find a lot to sympathize with on all sides, and a lot that leaves you feeling really conflicted, and some things that just outright shock you.

Just listening to the dialogue is a master class on its own. It’s not unusual for a series to get one “sound” right – the streets, maybe, or the police. The Wire manages to hit every group and make it sound natural and effortless. You come to love certain characters just because of the way they talk – my favorite’s Proposition Joe, though Omar and the Bunk are close behind. It’s incredible to hear so many unique voices, especially with so many characters to juggle, you’d figure that sooner or later someone would get lazy, write some filler. But it just doesn’t happen.

So sometimes when I have trouble sleeping, or just need a fix of some fine writing to jumpstart my own inspiration, I put it on like some people put on the Beatles, and just sit back and listen to the poetry. If you haven’t, give it a try. I’ll tell you this much – it takes about three episodes to kick in. Those first couple are a little confusing, not because they’re poorly written, but because they refuse to play like the television we’re used to, wrapping things up neatly each episode, with clearly defined arcs and outcomes. Then it kicks in, the shape of the series starts to emerge, and damn! Off you go.

Enjoy. And listen carefully.


Love & Hurricanes

In the movies, it’s easy to know when someone realizes how much someone means to them. The music swells, the camera zooms, the dialogue slows down and the actor(s) focus everything on a single point. Realization dawns on them, and then they march off to war, turn the cab around on the way to the airport, put on a tutu and dance in their kid’s recital, etc. It’s simple, and even though there may be more obstacles in the way, we know that they will find a way to express it eventually.

In life, unfortunately it’s the bad more often than the good that pushes these moments. (I blame the lack of orchestral musical cues.) It’s another cliche that we only recognize what we love, what we value, when we are on the edge of losing it. But like folktales and good lies, most cliches have an element of truth to them. Those moments force us to put our hands against the mural we make of our lives and remember that for all its beauty, it’s still just stained glass. It only ever takes a little pressure to bring it down around us. Even if, looking back, we realize we might not have been so close to the edge as we thought at the time, that never really matters. The knowledge we gain is all that counts.

That’s where I am tonight, watching the weather howling on the other side of all the colors and swirls. I love so many people, and I want them to be okay. I want to see the sun come up tomorrow morning and shine through that mural without so much as a single piece out of place. I love each one so much it just about breaks my heart.

I love.


h+

Between anticipation for the new Deus Ex installment, reading the superb Eclipse Phase game and a couple of books like Soft Apocalypse and Altered Carbon, the future’s been on my mind lately. A couple years back, I was introduced to the concept of transhumanism, which can be briefly described as a philosophy that seeks to anticipate and sometimes even precipitate what’s going to happen to humanity in the next 10, 20 or 100 years. One of the big things about a lot of transhumanist writing that sets it apart from more traditional views of the future is that it tends to take a close look at the changes that will happen within us, both as individuals and as a species, as opposed to external changes and technologies.

To put it another way, for traditional science fiction, think of Star Trek. In that vision of the future, almost all the technological advancement is external. Human beings are basically unchanged physiologically (though that might have had more to do with the makeup budget in some cases). Sure, they have awesome medical advances, and occasionally you find out that someone like Picard is actually a super cyborg with a crazy artificial heart, but otherwise they deal in external technologies: holodecks, starships, phasers, three level chess sets, Mr. Data. When he looked forward, Rodenberry saw a future like our present, only with better toys.

By contrast, for a more transhumanist view of the future, read the graphic novel series Transmetropolitan, Warren Ellis’ gonzo, foul-mouthed, hardboiled and venomously optimistic opus. In this future, there’s plenty of external technology – most of it weapons, predictably enough – but it pales in comparison to the stuff that people have done to themselves. Genetic engineering, cybernetic augmentation, neural enhancements, cryogenic statis, even migration of consciousness into clouds of nanotechnology. In other words, Ellis looked at the future and figured that we’d use all of our wonderful advances to get high, score more often and otherwise enjoy ourselves. When we weren’t killing each other in new and interesting ways, that is. Transhumanism isn’t necessarily that gonzo and decadent, but the heart was there.

Personally, I look into the future, and I see the next decade or so bringing big changes. I think we’re going to see a few big leaps – restoring sight, restoring hearing, improved prosthetics, etc. – and I think I may be a little bit too conservative, on the whole. I think of the future and I keep hearing “This Is the Moment” from Jekyll & Hyde, though if you know your musicals, that’s not necessarily the best omen. But I think we’ll manage. I hope we do, because I’m an optimist at heart, and I think we have it in us to go more Star Trek than Transmet.

Though I would love a bucket of caribou eyes.

So here’s my question for you out there in reader land:
What do you think we’ll see in the next 10 years?


Three Reasons Your Boffer LARP Is Rubbish

What I See Is Not What I Get

Whether you’re trying to imagine a high fantasy sword & sorcery world, a grim post-apocalyptic nightmare or a shadowy world of occult conspiracies, just trying to imagine that you’re actually immersed in the setting instead of wandering around a hotel, friend’s backyard or rented Boy Scout campground is a major investment on the part of your imagination. Add to that seeing the other players as their characters instead of fellow geeks in costumes, and your imagination is working in overdrive pretty much the entire time you’re in-game. Add to that an extra level of narrative flourish – “OK, guys, I know that looks like a tent, but it’s actually a huge castle!” or “OK, when you see me, I’m 15 feet tall and have two heads and a glowing sword!” – and staying immersed becomes essentially impossible. Don’t tell me you have a glowing sword, show me! Stay as close as possible to what your props, costumes and makeup can already create, and let our imaginations do the rest. If you need to narrate, keep it brief and stay close to what’s in front of us. Our imaginations are already heavily taxed, so don’t add to that burden unless it’s absolutely amazing or absolutely necessary.

The Rules Are In the Way

LARP needs to flow smoothly, because when you interrupt the action, there’s an awkward pause where we all suddenly realize we’re playing a game instead of stayig immersed in our characters. This is especially true in boffer LARP, where maintaining the flow of things like combat and large group social interaction are crucial. Any time I see a skill that calls for a time-out, I cringe a little, especially if it’s a skill that will be used even relatively often. The same goes for skills that call for measurements on the fly – it’s one thing to have a ritual-type skill that takes 10 minutes to create a 15 foot circle of protection. That’s plenty of time to measure out the distance, and indeed creating the space is part of the roleplaying. It’s quite another to have a skill that calls for people to try to measure a 10′ radius in the middle of combat. Keep your mechanics as unobtrusive as possible – try to incorporate them into roleplaying whenever possible, instead of being something you do in addition to roleplaying, and when you can’t, try to make them quick and easy to resolve, instead of chewing up valuable game time.

“PC” Also Stands for “Paying Customer”

The best boffer LARPs I’ve ever seen never forget this – that a player has laid down some serious money for admission, not to mention costumes, props, food & drink, gas, etc. Some games take a very haughty “we are Serious Artists and if you don’t like it or get screwed over or whatever then too bad” approach, where the staff feels free to openly favor characters, do terrible things that ruin people’s fun for the weekend or otherwise mess with people’s entertainment in the name of Creating Art. I remember attending a boffer LARP where a player’s character was hit with a Big Deal Magic Effect on Friday night and essentially removed from play for the rest of the weekend. The staff congratulated themselves for being amazing and daring, but the player was pissed – he’d gotten his gear together, hauled it to the game site and paid his money to play, and less than four hours in his game was ruined. When he complained, they told him he could be an NPC all weekend, and gave him guff for his “bad attitude.” Needless to say, I’m with the player – he paid to play his character, not do their grunt work all weekend. (If you want to NPC for a whole game, fine, but that should be your choice, not one forced upon you.) Mind you, I’m not saying that players should always win/get what they want, or that staff cannot endanger characters, challenge players’ expectations or whatnot, or even that LARPs can’t create Art. But games need to remember that there are different obligations when it’s your friends sitting around your kitchen table, and when it’s 100+ people who’ve paid $50 or more to play your game. One is a friendly meet up, with nothing more than pizza money on the line; the other is a business, and forgetting that is a bad idea.

Pete Woodworth wrote, edited and developed for White Wolf Game Studio’s groundbreaking Mind’s Eye Theatre LARP game system for 8 years, and has been playing and writing both parlor and boffer LARPs for 17 years. 


Visitations

Last night I had a nightmare so disturbing that I woke up crying.

I haven’t done that in a very long time, as evidenced by the fact that it completely baffled my poor, concerned wife. I’m not terribly superstitious about a lot of things, but bad dreams fall into that tiny category, and as a result I don’t really want to talk about the main topic of the dream itself. Instead, I want to talk about one of the elements of the dream that most disturbed me: the arrival of my mom’s parents, my grandparents.

As a bit of background, I am one of the very lucky few who grew up knowing all four of my grandparents until well into my 20s. I felt close to all of them, though due to simple geography we tended to see my mom’s parents more often. Many of my friends met her parents over the years, and I take it as a telling tribute that when they passed, both times friends and even exes asked to attended the memorial services, because in their own ways they had loved my grandparents too.

To sketch the nightmare scene, I was in my parents’ house, and it was late at night. Everyone else – because I felt that my parents and my brother were also there, just like when we all lived at home – was asleep, and I was up reading. I heard a knock at the front door, and went downstairs. There was another knock, and I opened the door to find my mom’s parents standing there. They looked the way I tend to remember them, older but not as frail as they were near the end of their lives, and definitely not “ghostly” or “zombie-like” in any way. They didn’t have fangs, red eyes, spooky voices, or anything like that. It was just them, standing on the front step with sad expressions, but it still scared me out of my mind. It took poor Meg almost half an hour to calm me down, as I woke nearly hysterical, and even after regaining some composure I still slept with a light on for the first time in many years.

When the sun came up, though, I thought about how confusing a response that is, and to a degree how some other ghost stories are too. I mean, it was my grandparents, who loved me and supported me and would never, ever in a million years want to hurt or frighten me. And in the nightmare they didn’t do anything scary or disturbing – yes, seeing your deceased grandparents could be considered disturbing on its own, but that’s not what I mean. All the fear seemed to well up in me, rather than come from them or anything they did. But when I think about it, I’m not so sure what scared me so badly about seeing them.

Especially when I miss them so badly while I’m awake.


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