Category Archives: Gaming

Author’s Toolbag: Gaming Part Three

Some games are more realistic than others...
Some games are more realistic than others…

In Part One I talked about a general overview of what gaming provides a writer, while in Part Two I went into a bit more detail about how roleplaying games can help a writer develop his plots, characters, and worlds.

Here in Part Three, I’ll talk a bit about how wargaming can help you craft and design more realistic scenes for your books.  Obviously this advice holds a bit more true to those of you writing military or combat themes in science fiction or fantasy, although if you have even a small fight scene in what you write, it may behoove you to pay attention.

So, what does wargaming offer?  Well, it gives you some basic understanding of tactics and planning.  This, in and of itself, can show in your writing as your characters refer to flanking an enemy or massing fires.  Knowing even just the basics of how a fight would play out can really help when you go to write up that fight scene.

It can also help you to visualize where characters are and what kinds of odds they face.  Knowing that Throk the barbarian has to face a hundred orcs is one thing, putting a hundred markers out to show just how insane that would look is something else entirely.  Where this plays out is that it allows you to keep your fight scenes somewhat grounded.  It makes no sense for one person to hold out against hundreds without some huge advantages… unless you’re writing manga or some kung-fu movie type scenes.

Also, wargaming gives you a sense of the scale of a fight.  If your characters are taking part in a huge battlefront where tens of thousands of warriors are clashing, seeing that scale can help you to write scenes that feel more epic and with high stakes to increase the tension.  Whereas if you have a small skirmish deep underground or with a handful of people in a forest, that close, intimate description can set the tone and the immediate consequences for characters can set the tone.

Where do you get started then?  Well, there are a variety of games and a variety of methods, but the easiest is to probably go to your local gaming store on a Friday night and just ask around.  Most gamers are pretty welcoming and would love to talk about what they play.  If you tell them you’re an author and you’re researching for a novel, you’ll probably have several eager gamers willing to talk about the basics.

In general, games like Warmachine and Hordes are small skirmish games with a handful of fighters per side (squad and platoon size), games like Warhammer 40k and Warhammer Fantasy are larger, small armies (company size or larger), while games like Flames of War are for larger scale battles (company and battalion).  There are a variety of ship-combat games, ranging from fighter level to capital ships (X Wing, Star Wars Armada, Battlefleet Gothic, and more).  Game rules range from very complex to absurdly simple and most give you at least a decent approximation of how a fight might play out.

One thing to remember as you go about converting what you learn with what you’re writing: don’t get too caught up in the technical details.  Writing is about characters, so spending a long time discussing the technology, tactics, and advantages of one side or the other is a good way to put your reader to sleep.  Slip that kind of thing in here or there, but focus on the characters, the stakes, and anything else to drive up tension.  A fight scene (whether between hundreds of capital ships in a distant galaxy or just two characters locked in a grapple with knives), is there to show conflict, increase tension, and to make the reader excited.  Dry, technical dialogue is a good way to ruin an otherwise perfectly good scene.  Don’t take pages to get to the point, do it quickly, establish the stakes, show the danger, and complete the scene in a manner to accomplish your plot goals.

Another point: the main character doesn’t always need to win.  In fact, oftentimes it is far better for the story if they don’t.  They might be defeated ingloriously and either left for dead or taken prisoner.  They might be forced to withdraw in the face of overwhelming odds.  There are lots of options for you, as a writer, to use conflict to batter your character, to force them to grow and into introduce themes and plots that you couldn’t explore otherwise.

That’s all for now.  Thanks for reading!

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Author’s Toolbag: Gaming Part Two

Sometimes your characters are gamers too...
Sometimes your characters are gamers too…

In Part One, I talked about some general ways in which gaming can help a writer.  Here in Part Two, I’ll go into more specifics of how running (or playing) a roleplaying game can help you, the author, in developing your world, improving your characters, and building your plot.

Roleplaying Games (RPGs) are a variety of games, ranging from complex (Rifts/Palladium) to very simple (Hero).  What they all have in common is that they give you a framework for acting out the story of a character as he experiences adventure.

This is, at its root, the basis of storytelling.  A game master or dungeon master puts together a story and the players, through their characters, experience that story.  It is much like the pattern a writer takes to tell a story to his or her readers.

That’s not to say that I recommend writing a story based upon your RPG sessions.   Most RPG sessions, however hilarious and exciting to the players, will come off as a boring blow-by-blow to readers.  This is an incidence of a difference in audience, for one thing.  A RPG session is focused on individuals who already have a stake in their characters (they’re playing them, after all).  Readers won’t have that buy-in, so they won’t care as much about the incidentals.  They also don’t have the perspective of being there and knowing the other players, after all, reading isn’t a group event.

So how does playing or running an RPG help you as a writer?  Well, there’s different areas that it helps.  For a developing writer, I highly recommend playing as a character.  Spending a few hours developing a backstory, building in quirks, perks, and flaws into a character gives you some perspective on character design that is very valuable (even if you don’t use that character ever again, you learn a lot in the experience).  Even more valuable than that is the ability to role-play that character in a group.  A common flaw among new writers is that all of their characters sound, act, and feel the same.  Playing a variety of player characters over a variety of games gives someone a chance to develop those character voices, to make them separate and distinct.

For a more experienced writer, I’d recommend taking this to the next level and running an RPG.  Doing so in a world you write in not only challenges you to flesh out your world, but also to expand your cast of characters and to flesh out your plotting.  There’s nothing quite as hard to control as a group of gamers as they rampage through your world.  As long as you are doing your job as a game master, they’ll always be wanting to see what is beyond the next corner or over the next hill.  You’ll quickly find yourself having to develop organizations, secret societies, and fleshing out details like what places look like and where all the ships sail after they leave the port.  These things by themselves won’t make you a better writer, but the consideration that your characters live in a greater world does come through your writing.

Plus, trying out some prospective plots or themes within a gaming session is a fantastic way to experiment.  If you think you’ve come up with a really clever idea, there’s nothing like having a bunch of players trample over or around it, either seeing right through it or being completely oblivious.  That kind of thing can really help you to develop your abilities as far as foreshadowing, plotting, and generally developing your ability to tell a complex plot.

Now remember, all this doesn’t require a boxes of odd-shaped dice and reams of character sheets.  Roleplaying  to test some ideas could be as simple as you getting a couple friends together talking through a scene from your book, gauging responses and impressions, and then getting back to writing.

Now, a pitfall I’ve seen as far as using your gaming experience as a writer is becoming too oriented on the mechanics.  Readers don’t want to see how you built your characters or how your character blocked an attack.  They probably don’t want to read a blow-by-blow of a fight.  You can put such things in, but they should never take over the story.  Readers want to see the characters progress along their story arcs.

That’s all for now, next week I’ll talk about war-gaming and what it adds to your abilities as a writer.

Author’s Toolbag: Gaming Part One

Sometimes your characters are gamers too...
Sometimes your characters are gamers too…

As an author, particularly a Science Fiction and Fantasy Author, there’s not a lot of ways to draw directly from real-world experience to determine what is “real” in my writing.

There are a number of methods to deal with that, to fill out a world, to get a feel for how things work.  World-building, of course, is a massive part and I’ve written a series of blog posts on that which you can read elsewhere (History/Society, Magic and Science, Geography and Climate).  Another great method is to base things off of real-world events and experience (since history oft repeats itself, such restructured events and outcomes will feel ‘real’).

What I’m going to talk about today, however, is gaming.  Now, even as I say that I can mentally picture a number of people cringing.  The potential critics thoughts range from someone who pictures a group of LARPers out beating each other with foam weapons to the guy with the full scale replica of the battle of Gettysburg to the computer nerd who has set up a simulation of the Romulans fighting the Borg (Romulans lose, sorry).

The truth is, though, that gaming at a variety of different levels is what you do anyway as you work through your plot and story. You think about what you want to happen and how you want it to happen and then what needs to happen for that to work out in the end.  What I propose is to formalize that a bit to give you a more realistic idea of outcomes.

There’s a variety of different types of gaming that you can apply, all aimed at different goals.  These goals can range from helping you to more fully develop your world to figuring out what it would take to win a desperate battle to finding out how difficult a puzzle or scenario would be for your characters to figure out.

That said, there’s a variety of games for you to apply and happily, most of them are fun too (see Science Fiction and Fantasy Gaming Overview for a breakdown of games).  Roleplaying games provide a lot of positives for a writer.  First off, being the DM or GM of a game gives you a lot of experience in coming up with ideas and storylines on the fly.  Second, it forces you to really think about the worlds your players are exploring.  Tabletop wargaming, whether on the skirmish level or all the way out to massive armies, can help you to visualize where characters are and just how stacked the odds are against them.

That’s all for now.  Next week I’ll go into the process of applying gaming to your world-building, writing, and plotting.  (Part Two here)

Computer Games: Modern Space Simulations

Star Citizen isn't even past the alpha stage yet, but it already looks incredible.
Star Citizen isn’t even past the alpha stage yet, but it already looks incredible.

As I said in my last post, space simulation games, such as X Wing, Wing Commander, and Freelancer, have basically been a thing of the past.  RPGs such as Mass Effect or MMORPGs like Eve Online or Star Wars The Old Republic dabble a bit in this area, but these oftentimes come back to character skills rather than a player’s ability to fly.  Up until fairly recently, big developers like EA didn’t want to produce games for what was seen as a ‘niche market.’

That all changed with Kickstarter, which has changed the paradigm for a lot of things.  Chris Roberts, creator of the Wing Commander and Freelancer games, posted that he wanted to get a few million dollars and produce a modern space fighter sim game.  The overwhelming response brought in over 17 million dollars.  At this point, they are nearing seventy million dollars of funding from around half a million people, many of whom have access to the game as it currently exists in development.  Other games, like Elite Dangerous, have been similarly funded and are going live.

What this means, in a lot of ways, is that the big developers were wrong… or at least, not entirely right.  Star Citizen is an incredibly ambitious game design, which will feature First Person Shooting, Space Exploration, Mining, Combat, and a fully interactive in-game economy.  All of this will be controlled by players, not their characters, but through actual player skill.  The physics are, while not one hundred percent accurate, include inertia, acceleration and G-forces.  A player in this game could fly up next to another ship, jump out an airlock, board the other vessel, and fight in first person mode, while a space combat occurs outside.  The game isn’t even out yet and many of its detractors say that it never will be… yet I think it’s a sign that we want more, demand more, than the slow, incremental improvement (such as World of Warcraft getting new character make-overs… yay) of the same games and types of games that have been popular.

I think it’s also a sign that we humans still dream of travel into space and we want to be as close to the action as possible.  If we can’t go out, we want as accurate a simulation of that as we can get.  The great thing about games like Star Citizen and Elite Dangerous, is that they’ll inspire a next generation, not just with the excitement of ‘being there’ and doing things themselves, but with the idea that getting into space is something that we should put a bit more effort into… if only so that their children can experience it first-hand rather than through a computer game.

Computer Games: Retro Mode: X Wing, Tie Fighter, and X Wing Alliance

Going up against a Star Destroyer in a snub fighter, what's not to like about X Wing?
Going up against a Star Destroyer in a snub fighter, what’s not to like about X Wing?

I still remember the first time I bought X wing.  I was in high school at the time.  I spent $40 at the time, was so excited by the idea, couldn’t wait to get it home and hop in the cockpit of my very own spaceship.

Of course, I didn’t know much about computers and discovered I’d bought a mac version of the software, which I couldn’t then exchange (store wouldn’t allow exchanges of computer software).  Money wasted, in a lot of ways.

But the dream lived on, and when I saved up, I got a version of Tie Fighter that worked, complete with a joystick and I settled down to play.  Even at the time, I knew it wasn’t a very good simulation for actual space combat.  Ships moved at WWII aircraft speeds (sometimes WWI), the graphics were great for their time (but very dated now), the physics were completely inaccurate, and the overall gameplay was relatively simple and linear compared to modern games.

What the game did do, however, was tell a great story, give challenging scenarios that required skills, thought, and even tactics.  This further evolved with the follow on game a few years later with X Wing Alliance, which updated the graphics and allowed the player to play through a fun campaign, as well as evolving the multiplayer a bit more and allow crafting of scenarios.

What did I get from these games?  Well, they let you live out some of the most exciting aspects of the Star Wars universe, putting yourself in the pilot of a tiny ship and pitting your skills against not only the computer, but other people.  They were tremendously fun, but they also were a key aspect of inspiration to me.  They opened up a section of the Star Wars universe that was, until then, sort of vague and abstract.  You could not only see what it was like to be in a military unit in this universe, but you could see how the flight mechanics, technology, and tactics could unfold.  You could witness the awesome firepower of a Star Destroyer and also work together as a team to take one down using outdated snub fighters and hot-shot piloting.

I still maintain that a lot of modern games lack that same spark.  Games like Mass Effect and Eve Online are RPGs, where it is the skill of the character rather than the player that determines an outcome.  This is fine, in many ways, but it also somewhat distances the player from his accomplishments.  With an RPG, you can ‘build’ a character to accomplish tasks.  While you might take some pride in taking down a ship or discovering some new planet, you aren’t the one doing it… your character is.  At most, you have skill in using the character’s abilities… which isn’t the same thing at all.

With simulator games like X Wing and it’s follow-ons, the player has a direct connection to their accomplishments.  I think that brings a whole new level of excitement to the game.  In many ways, getting into space behind a joystick is the pinnacle of my dreams… and doing so as me versus a character is far better.  Other games, like Freelancer also explored and expanded on the groundwork, adding more options, entire worlds, star systems, and other mythologies as well as a bit more accuracy in physics and technology.  They still have a WWII fighter feel, but they have entire star systems to explore and discover, with options to trade, explore, defend, and pirate.

These games, in many ways, allowed their player base to live out their dreams of reaching the stars, if only in a limited sense, in a way that RPGs can’t do, in a physical, exciting fashion that brings the risks and rewards of space to the player.  I’ll gladly admit that those old space simulation games inspired me with ideas and possibilities, and in many ways were responsible for keeping my excitement over space travel alive.  I know for a fact that I wouldn’t be where I am now if not for the excitement that these games gave me in my youth.  Unfortunately, these types of games became less and less common in the last decade, with most of the focus going to First Person Shooter games, sports games, or RPGs/MMORPGs.  Space fighter simulations basically vanished, especially as big developers, like EA, consolidated a lot of the gaming companies and set about producing incrementally improved games based off their big sellers.

Check back soon for my next post: Computer Games: Modern Space Simulations.

Counter Culture, Identity, and Nerds

I won’t ever forget the time that I heard someone tell me that I wasn’t really a nerd.

This came as quite a shock to me, let me assure you.  At the time, I was GMing an ongoing D&D campaign which had run two full years, playing once or twice a week for that entire time.  I was also playing MMO’s as well as Warhammer 40k and Fantasy.  I had grown up playing computer games like Starcraft and Civilization.  For that matter, I not only had a library of science fiction and fantasy novels, but I’d written three of them myself and was trying to get them published.  In high school and college I was a band geek, a debate geek, I played D&D, I liked math, these things weren’t something I just picked up because I thought it would make me look cool… I love this stuff.  Surely, I thought, my credentials were well established.

Not according to the young man who accosted me.  He was angry, irritated, really.  He told me that I was too well adjusted, that I hadn’t suffered enough, that I didn’t wear my badge of nerd-dom through my appearance and dress, that I needed to look the part.  Granted, he said this much less eloquently, and talked about how real nerds were outcasts, they were the people who rejected society because it rejected them and it didn’t understand them.  Nerds weren’t successful because non-nerds kept them down.

Now, say what?  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my fair share of rejection, but not what I’d call ‘oppression’, which seemed to be what this guy was hinting at.  And frankly, I’m not the type to curl up into a ball because I get my feelings hurt.  If that was the case, I probably wouldn’t have survived middle school.  Who cares about being insulted or rejected?  It happens to everyone, for one reason or another.  As for being beat up… well I could set there and take it, but it is far more satisfying to punch back.  Turns out that fighting back really is the best tactic to prevent bullying, who would have thought?

And, looking at society, there were a lot of successful people who are also nerds.  Bill Gates comes to mind as one of the standard lines.  But there are others.  In my circle of friends I know lawyers, military officers, engineers (lots of them), neurobiologists… these are people who are pretty much examples of success and are also total nerds (trust me, you should have heard the gales of laughter from my friend’s wife as we were discussing the pro’s and con’s of wizard versus sorcerer).  Oh yeah, and most of them are married, because contrary to popular opinion, being a nerd and having some social graces are not entirely mutually exclusive.

So why, exactly was this young gentleman accusing me of not really being a nerd (while wearing hipster faux glasses and button-up shirt he’d probably bought at Calvin Klein).  Well, it comes back to the counter culture idea.  Nerds are seen as the ‘cool’ people right now.  Shows like Big Bang Theory and Glee have somehow turned the nerdy kids into the ones to be… but along the way, those trendy types are emulating the appearance but not the actual spirit.  These people identify as nerds, but they do so because they think that nerds are somehow the victims, the downtrodden.  So, in this conversation, I’d mentioned that I didn’t feel particularly downtrodden by being a nerd.  Thus, the declaration that clearly I wasn’t a nerd or geek.

I just think this fellow was a bit confused, but that encounter wasn’t mine alone.  I’ve had other friends who trend towards the nerdy end of the spectrum confronted as well.  For that matter, I’ve seen science hijacked by the trendy crowd (I’m looking at you “I Fucking Love Science” with your overly simplistic science and your fancy pictures and charts).  While I appreciate that all things nerdy, from science and science fiction to comic books to gaming to roleplaying, are now somewhat fashionable… well, I think it’s more important that people do these things because they actually have interest, not hitting like or share on FB because they want to look cool, and definitely not trying to build their little cliques and power structures within greater nerd-dom.  I certainly don’t want some kind of victim mentality pushed on all of us because we’re different.  I like being different, thank you, so please don’t ruin it for me.

And as for you mister trendy nerd… well, I’m glad you’re showing an interest, but don’t go around flinging accusations, especially not when your own credentials include “I like XBox games and I played Mario Bros once.”

Anomaly Con Denver Review

IMAG0140

I went to Anomaly Con this past weekend.  It’s a smaller Fan Convention in Denver, Colorado.  The general theme is steampunk and alternate history, though there was certainly guests, panels, and events linked to science fiction, traditional fantasy, and even urban fantasy as well.  I’ll cover the highlights for those interested.

Tracy Hickman was there, talking about his new game Sojourner Tales, which looks to be a lot of fun, check it out here.  He also hosted his Killer Breakfast event, though that had a depressingly low turnout.  It was still a lot of fun, and I got to be slain multiple times..  For those who haven’t heard of it, typically several hundred people are killed in a 2 hour session, mostly whenever their characters cease to entertain.  My favorite part was when I used my long underwear as a parachute, then rolled a natural 20 as a success, leaving Tracy Hickman literally speechless.  It even has a website, apparently, find that here.

Author Carrie Vaughn was there.  Most famous for the Kitty Norville books, she is an excellent panelist, and she had a lot of good info, is always very organized, and she kept on topic as well as answering any questions from the audience.  All in all, she’s a friendly author, and seems to be a great person.  If you’re a fan of urban fantasy, you should check her out.  I’ve read a number of her books, and they are an excellent example of urban fantasy, and more original than most.  Check out her website here.

Also present was Quincy Allen.  He’s a ‘hybrid’ author, who started out self published and has since gotten involved in small press.  He’s a Colorado author, an all around interesting fellow, and fun to talk with.  His novel, Chemical Burn, will be re-released under Kevin J Anderson’s Word Fire Press.  Check it out here from Amazon, and Word Fire Press here.

I didn’t have the opportunity to set on any panels, but I did have some fun conversations with a variety of folks there at the conference.  I also found a very cool John Crichton Farscape-style vest and jacket, just out of my price range at the moment.  Of course, if my book sales pick up a bit, I suppose I can work buying it in the future.  Check out their website here.  They’ve got a lot of cool stuff.

Just out of reach.  Monetarily and height-wise.... sometimes I hate being short.
Just out of reach. Monetarily and height-wise…. sometimes I hate being short.

 

All in all, it was an interesting weekend.  Anomaly Con is a quirky little convention.  I don’t know that I’ll attend next year, but it was an experience this year.