Feb 28, 2013

Gamers in the Media

I'm proud to call myself a gamer. It's a hobby which has brought many friends into my life and helped me practice my creative skills. It's something I hope to pass on to my children as they grow up.

But damn it all if I don't cringe every time I see gamers represented in the media. Whether fact or fiction, gamers are still most often shown to be unwashed, socially inept creeps, often with an apparently limited grasp of reality.

Now some of this ties to a period in the 80s when ultra-conservative religious groups decided that roleplaying games were the tools of the devil. Unfortunately, this is not the only thing to blame for how roleplayers are presented.

Gaming attracts teenagers who don't fit in elsewhere. It's a non-physical activity, so you don't need to be fit or athletic. Many games, especially those released in the 80s and 90s, involve a fair amount of rules and math, so academically-minded kids have typically found it an easy outlet for using and expressing that side of themselves. And of course, those are the kids so stereotypically picked on for being nerds. Whether that's the case in real life doesn't matter, though I speak from experience that it was the case in my school, because it's how the media often chooses to portray people who love science and fantasy. Just look at The Big Bang Theory, a show taking high school clich├ęs of science nerds and applying them to modern adults.

So gamers make easy targets. Despite the mainstreaming of sci-fi and fantasy pop culture, it's still acceptable, even expected, for gamers to be the lowest of the low when it comes to geeks and nerds. In Shrek The Third, to show how much of a loser Artie is, even the roleplayer kids pick on him. The 2006 mockumentary, Gamers, depicts the lives of several adult roleplayers and sends the message that these people, all men either still living with their parents or desperately trying to get a girlfriend - the easy clich├ęs, need to grow up and leave their hobby behind if they want to achieve anything in life. Worse, going further back to 1982, an early Tom Hanks movie, Mazes and Monsters, depicts Hanks as a young man whose parents forbid him to play roleplaying games, and when he becomes involved with a new gaming group without their knowledge, winds up literally believing he has his character's powers and can fly, culminating in his friends stopping him from jumping off a building.

Unfortunately, real life doesn't offer much better. Most documentaries about gaming feature individuals who live up to the negative stereotypes, often showing snippets of gamers talking about their character as though they were real people. One of the more hard to watch examples I've seen is The Dungeon Masters, a documentary centering on three Dungeon Masters (or Game Masters/GMs) and their lives. We have a woman with an abusive past who spends much, if not all, the documentary shielded by the guise of her drow (dark elf) persona, in full make-up even at a tabletop game (full costume such as this is typically reserved for live-action roleplaying, or LARPing). A military reservist who abandoned his first wife and family and brags about his goal to kill off all his players' characters. And the one who hit hardest for me, a wannabe fantasy author being supported by his long-suffering wife and refuses to take on more hours in work because he claims it will take time away from his gaming and writing. While I have the utmost sympathy for any abuse survivor, these are not healthy people, certainly not examples of what so many gamers are really like. These individuals need help, not to be scrutinised and held up for the judgement of others like this.

While I think there's great responsiblity on the part of the people producing these films for how they choose to portray gamers, I think that we, as hobbyists, need to accept our share of it, too. It always seems to be those of us who most fit the negative image that are most willing to talk openly and share their interests. Maybe if more gamers, as a whole, could be as open, a greater variety of personalities and lifestyles will be shown.

There have been some steps, thankfully, to show a more positive image.

Role Models features Augie, a boy who loves LARPing and whose parents disapprove. However while the movie presents unlikeable characters who also play the game, the eventual message is that the game is fun and Augie is a great kid and his parents should be proud of him.

We also have Wil Wheaton's Tabletop showing people getting together and enjoying a range of different games. It's great to see this sort of thing, because it not only shows a side to gaming that's totally normal, but having anyone with celebrity status endorse something lends it extra credibility and acceptance. I'd argue that this is probably essential viewing for anyone either curious about the hobby or who is uncomfortable about it and seeking reassurance that it's not all cloaks and cults.

The tv show Community even had an episode based entirely around a session of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), one of the oldest and certainly the most famous (infamous?) roleplaying game.

Perhaps fittingly, going back to 1982 again, E.T. depicts one of the most realistic groups of gamers I've ever seen in a movie. It's easy to miss, but before Elliott meets ET for the first time, he's trying to get his brother Michael to let him join in a game of D&D he and his friends are playing. Are these kids drug-users? Are they dressed in funny outfits? Do they call each other by their character names when they go to school? No. They're just a bunch of teenagers having a good time with a game.

Gamers are a lot of things, far more than we get credit for in the media. Among those in my own circles of friends, we are accountants, software developers, PhD students, authors, graphic designers, teachers, doctors, civil servants. Even the priest who married two friends of mine is a gamer. We own our own homes. We have our own children.

We're normal people, we just happen to like sitting around a table to play a little make-believe and roll some funny-looking dice once or twice a week.

Feb 26, 2013

The Myth of Editors

I was recently listening to a 2-part episode of Fear The Boot which was about the process of getting published. Fear The Boot is actually a gaming podcast, and easily one of the best shows out there on the topic. I strongly urge any of you interested in gaming to check them out.

They do special episodes from time to time, which branch into different areas. Since many of the hosts and regular listeners have an interest in it, they decided to do a show about getting published.

One of the things which came up, since all the guests on this episode are self-published, was the idea that books published traditionally would be subject to major changes. Words like "shredded" were used, and in general I felt there was a big fear among the people on the show that a writer has to give up a huge amount of creative control if they choose traditional publishing.

I wanted to address this today. This is an absolute myth. Or at least, if you have a good editor, it is a myth. A publisher's submissions editor is not going to offer you a contract if your manuscript is in such dire need of re-writing that drastic changes would happen in the editing process. Of course there will be things that need to change. Editors know the industry and the market far better than you, and they know what the average reader is most likely to enjoy. When you're in the editing process, your manuscript has already proven itself to be something a reader is likely to pick up. Your editor's job is to make sure that when that reader has finished it, they want to read more of your work.

Working with an editor is a partnership. There's a lot of back and forth discussion about what you're trying to say in a given scene, and whether you can find a way to say it better. The image of the editor as a harsh taskmaster, returning your manuscript with red lines drawn through swaths of your work, demanding that it be cut or changed so that it's "more commercial" is something I have never experienced.

I have had two amazing editors in WiDo. Kristine Princevalle, who started me on my editing journey for Locked Within, and Amie McCracken, who took over when Kristine left WiDo and is still with me for the sequel. I have learned more about the craft of writing from these two women, in such a short space of time, than I have in all my years reading and keeping my work to myself. A good editor is equal parts partner, critic, and teacher. I would advise anybody who is wary of dealing with an editor to let go of those fears. Whether you have a publisher who assigns you one or you hire yourself a freelancer, your editor is going to be your best friend when it comes to your work, believe me.

Feb 21, 2013

Time and Gaming

This week I had to make a pretty tough decision with regard to my gaming. There's a lot of work that goes in to running a game, it's a pretty big investment of time and energy. For most of my time as a gamer, I've been the one to run the game, and most recently I've been running a fun, if rules-heavy, game called Hellas, which is a space opera game inspired by Greek myth.

Since the girls were born I've been on a break from GMing. I wanted to get used to the new routine before I went back to running games.

Unfortunately, I neglected to take into account a few things, like bedtime and the possibility of the girls needing to be fed or changed in the middle of a game.

Taking the time to have proper quality time with the girls when I get home from work, feeding them their supper, bringing them upstairs and reading to them, just doesn't leave me with enough time to get myself set up to run a game on the night. And, while my wife and I are not given to using her disability as an excuse for anything, the simple fact is of the two of us, I'm the one better able to carry the girls to bed and to quickly go upstairs to check on them if needed.

So, rather than rush the girls or put my players through drastically shortened playing time and moments when their GM has to disappear to check on a crying baby, I've extended my GMing break indefinitely, for weeknight games, anyway. At some point I'll be able to take up the job again, but I don't know when that will be. For now, I have to content myself with being a regular player, and getting some occassional GMing done with weekend games.

Feb 19, 2013

Bookstores

I absolutely love bookstores. They're among my favourite places in the world. I could happily wander through a good bookstore for hours, looking at covers and breathing in the wonderful smell of new books. As a matter of course, I try to find something to buy every time I go into one. It just doesn't feel like a proper trip to a bookstore unless I come out with something new to read.

This is a busy time for me. Completely aside from seeing to Erica and Amy's needs, I've started edits on my second book and I'm writing the first draft of my third. I am also contacting bookstores to try and get Locked Within onto their shelves. So far I'm meeting with great success, and within a week or so, at least four more stores will have Locked Within in stock.

Getting my book into stores is an important goal for me. Not just because I get far more of a kick seeing it on a real shelf than an Amazon listing, but also for what bookstores represent. Online stores are where you go when you already know what it is you want to buy, or you have a very specific set of search criteria. Top 10 lists, bestsellers in a genre, books by a particular author, special sales. I'm still too new and not established enough to be on most such lists. Bookstores are different.

People go to bookstores just to browse and wander. They want to be surprised by what they see, and discover something they didn't expect to find. A bookstore shopper is on an adventure, they want to brave new authors or a new series they haven't heard of before.

From one point of view, the more copies of my books are on the shelves, and in more stores, the better odds I have of being that person's new discovery.

From another, I want bookstores to stick around, and I want to be a part of what they are. It's bad enough that so many have already closed. While they're still here, still a place to have a half-hour adventure through countless possible stories, I want to be there. I want my book to be part of that adventure.

And here's where you can help.

I want to find more bookstores. If any of you know of local bookstores, and they don't already stock Locked Within, let me know. I'd love to get in touch with as many stores as possible.

Feb 14, 2013

What Stories Can a Game Tell?

It must be strange for someone not acquainted with tabletop gaming to see groups of people aged from their teens to their fifties all gathered around a table. The oddly-shaped dice. The confusing jargon. The cheets filled with often innumerable statistics and rules. It's a daunting hobby at first glance.

One of the first things I'm asked when explaining tabletop roleplaying to the completely uninitiated is what you do. How can you have a story from dice and sheets of paper? What stories can you tell from this hobby?

The answer is, anything you can imagine.

With a book, movie, or even a video game, the story is more or less static. There is room for interpretation and, in the case of many video games, even the chance to guide the story along certain paths. But the key draw to a tabletop roleplaying game is that the story can become anything the players so desire.

If you want to see what might have happened if World War 2 had been won by Germany, you can explore that. If you want to imagine a world where the American War of Independence never took place, you can. You can experience the Star Wars universe with a character of your own creation leading the Rebellion and taking on the Empire instead of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo.

The different games available each have their own niche areas. A game designed for sinister horror will be great for a game about a haunted house or an unstoppable serial killer. Meanwhile, a game like Dungeons and Dragons is more suited for combat-heavy games exploring ancient castles for treasure.

Some games do a variety of genres better than others, depending on your play style. Mutants and Masterminds, for example, is specifically a superhero rpg. However the rules are detailed enough to create almost any kind of character you can imagine, superhero or not. The core rules are relatively straightforward and fast-paced, allowing either cinematic action or brutal violence as the players desire.

I was honoured, recently, to learn that an old friend of mine from the Mutants and Masterminds forums had used the rules to build a version of Nathan Shepherd. The stats given there would allow anyone playing in a Mutants and Masterminds game to play as Nathan, or build a reborn of their own, taking inspiration from how his reborn abilities are represented.

Feb 12, 2013

Exposition In A Series

As you may know, I've started edits on  the sequel to Locked Within. The first thing on the list of things my editor wanted me to address was my habit of slotting in moments of exposition which recap the first book's events. I was told the readers would either be coming into this book having read the first, and wouldn't need such detailed recaps, or new to the series, and would enjoy guessing why certain characters didn't get along.

I've got to say I was incredibly relieved at this request. I've found that in some ongoing series, reading through the same character introduction five or six times from one book to the next can be incredibly dull. I like being reminded of minor events and characters, but if I've been reading a series, I don't need to hear a major character's life story every time they're reintroduced.

I think trusting the reader to remember important details can free up so much of a writer's time. Like chucking out a prologue or too much build-up in your first chapter, it allows you to get straight to the point. Instead of telling the reader who a character is, you keep showing them, through their actions. Letting a reader remember for themselves why your hero and his girlfriend broke up will have a much stronger impact when she turns up on his doorstep than if you stall the encounter to explain things directly. Similarly, a character's need for revege or the pain they feel over some traumatic event will feel real if you simply show the symptoms of their pain. Repeating the reason for a character's anger can make them seem whiney; no matter how horrible the event was, the reader wants to see the next part of the story, not be bogged down re-hashing the last book.

What do you think? Do you like expository recaps or do you prefer when the writer trusts you to remember on your own?

Feb 7, 2013

What is a Roleplaying Game?

I've talked before about my interest in tabletop roleplaying games, but I've never really gone into very much detail about the hobby. Since one of my stated goals for the year was to look at games and their ability to tell a story, I figured I should start off by letting people see this side of my life.

In a nutshell, roleplaying games are an evolution of childhood games like "cops and robbers." You're sitting around a table with a group of friends playing "let's pretend."

A given group could be anywhere from 2 to 7 people, or even more, though larger numbers can become difficult to manage.

In a typical group of 5 people, 4 will invent characters to portray. Much like improv theatre, the players will act out their character's personality and dialogue, describing actions and reacting to events within the game.

The remaining player is typically referred to as a referee or game master. In most games, the game maser, or GM, comes up with the characters the other players will meet and plays all those roles. He is also responsible for describing, and sometimes creating, the setting in which the game takes place, as well as coming up with the story, or adventure, that the player characters, or PCs, will embark on.

In order to add a tactical and random element, dice are rolled when a PC attempts something that they may not successfully accomplish. Depending on the game, the PC will have a list of abilities and skills which make them better at certain tasks.

It used to be that roleplaying game rulebooks described an RPG as "Imagine if you could control a character in your favourite book or movie." Well these days we have an even more direct comparison. Video games.

Imagine a video game where you play the hero. Only in this game, you're not limited in how to tackle a particular problem. If you face an opponent, you can choose to talk him down instead of shooting him. If you find a locked door, you can try to break it down or pick the lock instead of needing a key. If you talk to someone, you're not limited by pre-scripted conversation choices or forced to watch a cutscene. The graphics are all in your head. The other characters are your real-life friends.

Roleplaying games got a bad reputation in the 80s, particularly in America, where they were associated with devil-worship and witchcraft. I'll do into further detail in another post, but the hobby is still recovering from this. And while geeky is the new mainstream, roleplayers are often looked down on. It doesn't help that most portrayals of roleplayers in the media and popular fiction is far from flattering.

As I talk more about roleplaying, and gaming in general, I hope to explore more of the positive sides to the hobby. It has the potential to improve social skills, problem-solving, and confidence. In a high-tech world where our interactions risk becoming more and more impersonal through text messages and social networking, gaming is still a fairly low-tech, simple form of entertainment, one which requires players to interact and bond with their friends.

Feb 5, 2013

Liebster Award

Olene Quinn nominated me for the Liebester Award.

The Liebster award is given to up and coming bloggers who have less than 200 followers. What is a Liebster? The meaning: Liebster is German and means sweetest, kindest, nicest, dearest, beloved, lovely, kind, pleasant, valued, cute, endearing, and welcome.

Here are the rules for receiving this award:
1. Each person may post 11 things about themselves. *
2. Answer the questions that the tagger set for you plus create 11 questions for the people you’ve tagged to answer.
3. Choose 11 people and link them in your post.
4. Go to their page and tell them.
5. No tag backs!
6. Post an image of the award on your blog. There are many versions available. 


11 Facts about me:

  1. I love the outdoors, but I suffer from hayfever.
  2. I'm not a sports fan, but I love martial arts.
  3. My favourite hobby is tabletop roleplaying games.
  4. My handwriting is terrible.
  5. I make my own wine.
  6. I find it really hard to write without music.
  7. I decided I wanted to be a writer at the age of 12.
  8. I still watch cartoons.
  9. I cry at the end of movies.
  10. My favourite movie growing up was The Last Unicorn.
  11. My favourite music is film scores.
11 Questions from Olene Quinn:

  1. Cats or dogs: Dogs
  2. If you could have one person's fashion sense, who would it be? I'm not sure I know enough about fashion to even know whose style I'd want.
  3. Do you like to cook? Oh yes! Love it, especially when we have friends over.
  4. Coffee or tea? Coffee
  5. PC or Mac? PC
  6. What or whom makes you feel the most peaceful? Holding/watching my girls.
  7. Do you keep a garden? We have a garden. Of sorts. Does that count?
  8. What is your favourite movie? Dead Poets' Society
  9. What is the worst book or movie you've read or seen lately? Sucker Punch
  10. Do you have a goal for 2013? If so, what is it? Two, actually. To get the edits on my second novel finished in time for it to be released this year, and to draft the third and final part of the trilogy.
  11. Are you spontaneous or methodical? I'm fairly spontaneous most of the time, but I do like my planning as well.
11 Questions for my nominees:
  1. What movie do you secretly love?
  2. If you could travel to any place in the world, where would it be?
  3. When you were a child, what was your dream job?
  4. What was your favourite childhood toy?
  5. Do you have any hobbies that don't involve reading, writing, or that don't involve the internet?
  6. Do you have a lifelong dream?
  7. When did you come to realise it?
  8. What tv show could you watch over and over?
  9. What one part of modern living could you not live without?
  10. What one part of modern living would you love to live without?
  11. What book or movie are you most looking forward to in 2013?
My Nominees:

*I'm nominating the above people because I love their posts and appreciate their attitudes and insight. If they want to follow this up, awesome. But I know they're all busy with their own stuff, so I'm not going to take offence if they can't. ;-)

Also, I am fully aware I'm breaking the rules on the "less than 200 followers" mark, and even the numbers of nominees. I just don't enough very many followers who fit that requirement, and I like spreading the word about how awesome people are, regardless of rules.