Sunday, June 25, 2017

Of Audiences and Anchovies

Not too long ago I made a cake.

It was a rainy day and we had a box of “Duncan Hines Decadent Strawberry Cheesecake Cupcake Mix” collecting dust in the cupboard. I opened the box to find two bags, the bigger of which was frosting mix. The batter mix was dinky. Not a good sign.

Oh well, I whipped it all up to create a pink slop tasting strangely reminiscent of Froot Loops. Thinking it needed some help, I chopped up some strawberries and mixed them in. It created just enough batter to cover the bottoms of two cake tins. In the oven they went.

While the cake was cooking I turned my attention to the frosting. The white bag? It was basically powdered sugar. Blended with a stick of softened butter and some water it created a substance resembling frosting but one so sickeningly sweet it actually hurt to eat it.

Knowing this would not do, I warmed up a block of cream cheese and blended it in with the juice of a lime. Better. It created something like a key lime frosting, yet it was still missing something. I bopped around the kitchen trying to figure out what. Maple Syrup? Cumin? Oregano? Vanilla Extract? Then I saw it, a tall bottle of a dark brown fluid with a bright golden cephalopod on the label.

If you don’t know already, Fish Sauce is fermented anchovy juice. It smells like King Kong’s armpit and tastes like the bottom of a dead fish tank, but in small amounts it can provide an amazing sense of depth to anything it is added to.

I tossed in a teaspoon and then another, test tasting both times. The general rule with fish sauce is if you add so much that people can tell it is in there then you’ve added too much. Of course, once you have added too much fish sauce there is no way to get it back out.

Just for good measure I tossed in a third teaspoon and then a small splash.


The frosting is fantastic!!!!!

The cake came out. The frosting went on. What I ended up with was a very low, two layer tart-like strawberry cake which was a hit with everyone who tried a slice. I didn’t tell anyone the secret ingredient. For all they knew Duncan Hines Decadent Cake Mixes were bliss in a box. So....

What does this have to do with anything?

It has to do with the questionable sage-old advice of Know Your Audience. Not once during the making of the cake did I stop to think about who might be eating it. All of the taste judgments were my own and largely done without a thought. The only time I came close to second guessing my embellishments was with the fish sauce. I know my sister hates the stuff. Thanks to a bad encounter with a Fillet-O-Fish circa 1981, she cannot stand anything which comes from the sea. However, she also lives seven states away, and she probably still would have loved it because there was nothing fishy about the frosting. Nothing about the cake even remotely smacked of anchovies. Now if I had opened up a tin and laid the little fishes on top, pizza style, you probably wouldn’t be reading this because I would be locked away in an insane asylum.

When it comes to writing, whether it be for a story or a game, I step into the bubble of that world and separate myself from that big tangled mess of publishing and audiences and sales figures and such. I concentrate on making whatever it is the best I can by way of what I know. I simply cannot think creatively and also think about what my audience may think of it at the same time, not that I even know who my audience is to begin with. Duncan Hines may have millions to blow on focus groups and taste tests and production studies. I do not. And yet, what did all of that polling ultimately produce for them? A chintzy, bland, overly sweet cake mix which needed a whole lot of dressing up before it could even be considered edible. Anyone who buys a box on the basis of what I created is going to be sorely disappointed.

You can never truly know who your audience is. You can fool yourself into thinking that you do, but often all this does is cause a creator to file down the edges on whatever it is they are creating and lose that edge. So my alternative to Know your Audience is

Be your own Audience, but mind the Anchovies.

Being your own audience means that whatever you are creating needs to appeal to your own sensibilities above all others. Any time you find yourself writing something you don’t like but can justify by way of “this is what my audience wants.”

Just stop already.

I’m not saying you are wrong, but the world is littered with crappy things which could have been great had they been made by people who actually cared about such things. Look at the Top 40 music of pretty much any decade. Maybe you might get a handful of interesting songs, but most are just tunes made for the masses with about as much integrity as a cake mix.

Now listen to the song Big Balls by AC/DC. In it Bon Scott sounds like demoniac Winnie the Pooh. The rest of the band sounds like they just learned to play their instruments a few weeks ago. The song is not going to win any awards but the band is having so much fun it is hard not to enjoy it. Likewise, AC/DC may not be the best band of all time but the music they made was ultimately what they wanted to hear. They never sang a love ballad. They never cut a disco track. They never tried to rap. But if they had, it probably would have worked because that is what they wanted to do. AC/DC were never slaves to the fashion of the day.

But what about the Anchovies?

We all have anchovies. An anchovy is anything you love for one reason or another which other people might find distasteful. It is when dealing with anchovies that you have to realize that other people exist and that their hurt feelings may come back to haunt you.

In my novella Supernova, one of the main characters is Lt. Theresa “Tits” O'Shaughnessy. She is an anchovy. She is a blonde bombshell with big breasts and a demeanor that will never let you forget it. If you think I didn’t sweat over the thought of people reading up to her then putting down the book and swearing never to read anything I write ever again - you would be wrong. The world no longer cares for characters like Lt. Theresa "Tits" O'Shaughnessy but I was not about to give her up. She is there because the story needs her to be there. Ultimately, I did finagle the issue to make her presence a bit more palatable, but I don't think I filed off any of her edges. Only the other characters call her Tits, the author always writes O’Shaughnessy, over and over and over again (actually, I think I just wrote OS and then did a find/replace to fix it. Typing the name O’Shaughnessy is a repetitive action injury waiting to happen). She is also one of the smarter characters in the patrol. Anyone who accuses her of being a walking dumb blonde joke is playing off of their own bad attitudes rather than mine. Still. In our current climate where people are burned at the stake for making micro-aggressions against the masses - you have to mind your anchovies.

What actually got me writing today is news out of Sweden about the direction the new owners of the World of Darkness are planning on taking the game in. They want to make it grittier, darker and more realistic (gee - how original - never heard that one before), but what has everyone up in arms is a change to the vampire clan Ventrue. Apparently, they now can only survive by sucking the blood of small children.

On my shelf, I do have a number of World of Darkness game books from the 1990’s. I’ve never actually played the game, I simply like the books. If you want to understand my generation when we were crazy young 20-somethings, you could do a whole lot worse. The point for now is that I do not actually care what happens to Vampire the Masquerade or the Ventrue clan. The idea of monsters feasting on the blood of children is as old as Hansel & Gretel, quite possibly older, but it’s important to remember that in a Vampire game you play the role of the vampire, not the vampire hunter. If your favorite vampire character is of the clan Ventrue - guess what she is going to have for dinner tonight, and tomorrow night? Night after night? For the rest of eternity? If she lasts that long….

Yeah, that is going to rub people the wrong way. By all appearances this is definitely a case of mishandled anchovies. Of course, it could also be nothing more than a misconstrued message. The info was gleaned from a mission statement of sorts and enhanced by good old fashioned internet rage. In so far as I can tell it is not yet a part of the game. Who knows, maybe they will be making some changes in light of it all. Or maybe not.

Be your own Audience, but mind the Anchovies.

Because while we are all far more similar than not, those little difference can go a very long way. And not everyone loves the anchovies….

Thursday, June 8, 2017

What's My Beef With Story Games?

The funny thing is that I feel as if I have written this blog post a thousand times over, but the truth is I haven’t done that yet. It is just something I keep thinking about and milling over and over and telling myself I will eventually write but never do.

Until now.

I cannot say I don’t like Story Games because I have never played one. I simply don’t like the idea of them.

“But Jerry!” You theoretically think to yourself. “How can you say that! You’ve been writing fiction since you were fifteen years old! By now it should be in your blood. You, of all people. You should love story gaming!”


Stories are boring, boring and predictable. This doesn’t necessarily make reality interesting. There wouldn’t be a need for fiction if reality was a non-stop fireworks extravaganza, but most fiction fails to work. We get the premise. We watch the plot line rise and fall. It all culminates with some big conflict at the end and then the credits roll. Wheeee. It’s like a county fair roller coaster ride, but without the vaguely threatening advice to keep your head and arms inside the vehicle at all times. You’ve ridden this ride a thousand times before and will ride it a thousand times again. If it causes you to puke with excitement then you are probably an eight year old.


Ultimately, there are two factors which make a story rise above the rest. The first is delivery, how the author chooses to put it into words. What the creator chooses to show and what they choose to leave out. This a game can give advice on but is probably best left untouched by the rules. I mean, look at Dungeon World. It is actually a pretty interesting system up to the point where it tries to control the way you and your friends converse. The whole Moves business. For me that is where Dungeon World drives off a cliff and makes a flaming plummet into the gully of somewhat creepy control-freak hipsterism.

The second factor is the semblance of a real event. I don’t mean Batman grittiness or the dull pseudo-intellectual posturing of countless Oscar best picture awards. That is cosmetic. That is about using an appearance of reality to dress up a wholly fictional pig (and when is reality ever as dark and gritty as Batman? Or even as dull and gray as any superhero movie these days? Different topic for some other time).

The semblance of a real event is all about getting people to accept what is being portrayed as if it were actually happening. Magic and super-powers are not real but they can be acceptable just so long as everything else continues to treat them as if they were real. Where a game or a story falters is usually where it fails to do this.


It falters because our imagination doesn’t want unreality to succeed. The human imagination may be able to visualize and rationalize some pretty incredible stuff, but ultimately it only cares about reality.

The imagination does not exist to entertain us. 

It exists to let you and I see through real-life problems before they occur and become serious real-life fuck-ups. Using the imagination to think of the unthinkable registers as fun because ultimately this is the exercise of a time-tested survival mechanism. If we happen to dress it up in unicorns and rainbows - fine - just so long as the imagination gets to entertain itself by treating the proposed situation as a real life occurrence, then it will pat us on the head and reward us with that sweet sweet sense of fun.


The game that has me writing this rainy dull morning is a little story-telling game currently being kickstarted called High Plains Samurai. Since I am about to kick it in the proverbial nuts I’ll have to include a link to it and of course donate to it. Maybe you should to. It’s actually a pretty interesting concept - Samurai, Gangsters, Gunslingers and Barbarians in a Steam-Punk Post-Apocalyptic future.

The beef I have with HPS lies in the ScreenPlay engine where, to borrow directly from the kickstarter itself….

“Players take on the role of Writers working with the Director to draft complete stories of action, suspense, horror, and survival. Through their lead characters, Writers actively drive the story and create epic action sequences as the central storytellers; the Director reacts to their descriptions while simultaneously challenging their characters along the way. For every description moving the story forward, another player will deliver its outcome to push it further, react to events, and embellish details with camera angles, special effects, even a character's demise.”

Granted this doesn’t stray too far from the traditional tabletop RPG setup of Game Master and Player Characters but it does change the intention of the game itself. You are no longer playing What If, unless of course the what if premise is “what if we were writers and directors making a b-movie in Hollywood?” but without the whole matter of dealing with an out of control cocaine addiction, a six-figure divorce, and a screaming inferiority complex.

No. Ultimately you are trying to create a puppet show. “Wouldn’t it be cool if this were on film,” replaces “Wouldn’t it be cool if this were real.”

HPS promises high-octane, wire-fu action, which makes me think of the tree-top fight from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or the Jedi fight scenes from the Star Wars Prequels. They are impressive feats of film work but ultimately they ring hollow because you know we are only seeing them because some team of writers and directors checked the progress of the film and decided that at that point an eye candy filled fight scene was needed to keep things interesting.

It is just hard to get engrossed when you know all that is going on, when the outcome has already been decided in advance because one character is the hero of the movie and the others are not.

To be engrossed we need to think of all that is happening as if it were actually happening. We care about the characters because they are relatable and their survival is not guaranteed. We need to know what they are capable of and why the characters choose to ignore or capitalize on those capabilities.

And it all needs to make sense.


A few days ago I rewatched for the n-teenth time the 1974 Spielberg classic JAWS. It’s become a start of summer tradition around here. JAWS is not the perfect movie but god knows it does come close. The DVD also includes a bonus feature called “The Making of JAWS” which I had never seen before, so this was a first for me.

JAWS was a movie plagued by problems from beginning to end. Everything gave Spielberg grief - the weather, the actors guild, the people of Martha’s Vineyards, the robotic shark - to the point where the movie almost did not get made. Interestingly enough, in watching the Making of JAWS I couldn’t help but feel that if everything had gone according to plan they would not have made nearly as good a movie. You would have seen much more of the shark, far more scenes of people being eaten, and far fewer scenes of the little things which make it such an interesting film - but are really just there to eat up time left open by the malfunctioning shark: Chief Brody mugging it up with his son, the shark hunters hamming it up below the deck of the Orca, the mayor talking about how much he cares for the people of Amity Island while blindly trotting through the middle of a high school marching band - these sort of things are normally left on the cutting room floor because they do not fit the bill of “what people come to see.” With us, their presence in the movie registers as out of place. This increases the sense of uncertainty which in turn increases the dramatic tension which we the viewers feel humming in our bones as we sit there and wonder if it will all end in the way that we expect it will end.

JAWS does end in the way you expect it to end,

But it’s not the ending that makes JAWS great. It is that sense of uncertainty.

They're definitely going to need a bigger boat.

Certainty is boredom incarnate.

The same goes for games. If you don’t have the threat of a possible TPK looming under the dark waters of your game like a great white shark with cold dead eyes and the iron scent of blood in its snout, then it won’t carry much weight. Who knows? Maybe High Plains Samurai has this. It does entail dice rolling after all. I guess there is only one way to find out….

Here's the Kickstarter link.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Red EFT is the AGAMA, yet again...

What can I say?
The Red EFT failed, and yet it succeeded.

Back in February I finished the digitalverse project (to the typical field full of crickets that all of my web projects tend to encounter, thank you) and barreled head-long into what I had been wanting to work on the whole time, namely finishing up my table top rpg The Red EFT.

In the four months since then I have re-written the entire thing and rebuilt the site I use to manage its resources. And if that doesn’t sound like a ton of work then it’s time for Miracle Ear. The only problem is that in the last few weeks I have come to the realization that what I’ve created is not really the Red EFT.

A Three Hour Tour.
The Red EFT began a little over two years ago with the intention of creating a mini-system which was complete and yet no bigger than 10 pages in length. At the time the game system I was working on was called the AGAMA and it was huge multi-book affair that in no way could be condescended to just ten pages. So I thought creating the Red EFT would be a nice diversion, a lark, a fling, an exercise, a three hour tour….

It was going to be small, really, really, finger-pinchingly small. Characters could be squeezed onto index cards. There would only be three abilities - Mind, Body, Spirit - and then a die roll for your calling. If you were a wizard then you rolled this die for all things wizardly and that covered it. No endless lists of spells or modifiers. All magic was wish magic and you and the GM figured it out on the spot. The game was not supposed to be accurate just fast, really really fast. Like an actual red eft, it would be small cute and quick. Sounds pretty sweet, right? Actually, at 10 pages it turned out to be quite boring, like a game of Gauntlet on a glitchy arcade machine.

Wizard Needs Food, Badly.
The game was too short. The limit was stifling, made it lackluster, colorless, forgettable. I was about ready to ditch the whole project and go back to working on the Agama when I noticed someone on Google+ launching something called the B/X Challenge: write an entire game system in 64 pages or less, like the original Tom Moldvay Basic D&D booklet. I’m not one for internet challenges, but I do love me some B/X D&D, and so I changed my goals. The Red EFT would now be a complete system in 64 pages or less. Sure. No problem. This should be easy!

If anything, the expanded page limit complexified the process even more. Wizards could have spells again, but what spells would those be? How would the new system deal with the tug of war between power and resources? Is encumbrance actually worth it?

For help I turned to the Agama and there the unthinkable happened. Right in the middle of a file save Apache Open Office crashed and took the entire players handbook - the core rulebook - with it.

My head is a bit like a pressure cooker. You can pack pressure up there and it will contain it, but at some point its got to blow and when it does that steam will shoot a mile high.

With furious vengeance I began to rewrite the Agama players handbook. Unfortunately, my closest backup was over a year old. Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! The Agama was no more. I was going to kill it. Kill it dead! Kill it with fire! There was only going to be the Red EFT, and that was going to be the last goddamn game I would ever write. I’m sick of this shit!

The Big Rewrite.
And I did just that. Only, somewhere along the way I either forgot about or simply stopped caring about the whole 64 page B/X challenge. I reasoned my way out of the base three abilities. I brought back things like encumbrance because as much as people hate encumbrance it simply makes sense. I did eventually rewrite the players handbook as well as the game masters guide, and the world books and the character books and pretty much everything else I had ever created for the Agama system.


Yeah. Without even realizing it, I had once again totally rewritten my main game system. Something I have been doing and swearing I would stop doing since circa 1992. All that was left was to come up with a new name for it. So far the system has been called….

The Game.
The Theater of the Adsurb.
The ToAd.
Tales of Adventure (versions 1, 2 and 3).
The Model Reality Kit.
The Agama.
The Red EFT.

But I decided not to. Granted, the game is now quite different from what it had been before all of this Red EFT madness began, I like calling it the AGAMA. It’s not an acronym. It’s actually a reference to a small colorful lizard.

I think I just like the sound of the word. I like the way it rolls off the tongue when used in conversation.

“Hey Dave, what’s happening?”
“Oh, we’re going to play some Agama this weekend. Wanna come?”
“What’s the Agama?”
“That’s the name of the game system. The game itself is something I’ve been building called Wayward Suns. It’s Cowboys vs Ancient Egyptians on a strange alien planet in the Alpha Centauri system. A lot of six-gun shoot-em ups with weird reptilian creatures.”
“Alright. Sounds cool. I’ll be there, what time?”

On top of it all, I am still somewhat taken by the original vision of the Red EFT: the idea of a quick little starter game built around the principles of the Agama that can be given away for free. You know, something for the kids to have fun with :-)

Someday, I will buckle down and do it, but for right now I think it’s best to concentrate on finishing the flagship product before creating a scaled down version of it.