I said before — no, wait, I said it over and over — that there is a distinction between the point and the plot. The novel you are writing may have a surface structure with a complex plot, but underneath it you still have some point you’re trying to get across. Or, perhaps, one you do get across, whether you’re astute enough an author to manage it or not.

The same logic applies to giant pop-culture stories like Star Wars: there are familiar, yet important, lessons about family to be learned beneath all the blaster fire. Goodness, the same logic applies to videogames. You may not like faerie tales, or big special effects movie extravaganzas, or big special effects videogame extravaganzas, but there’s still a point underneath that you could learn.

But why do it this way? I argue that it’s important to approach a tale on its own terms: to settle yourself within the shell created by the story’s plot and look at the point it makes within.

You’ve been in this situation: you’re enthusiastic about a story you just read/watched/heard, you want to tell somebody else, and the person you’re telling shoots you down with “I didn’t like it; it’s just about [insert quality here],” such as “it’s just about stupid dragons,” or “it’s just about the special effects,” or “it’s just about blowing up the Death Star.” Here your associate is getting hung up on the surface. And you try, goodness but you try: “It’s not about that! Once you get into it, you see it’s about so much more!”

Well, the issue is that it has all these layers; it has both a plot and a point. So, why place all this complex structure on top of the point? Why build a Death Star? Why not . . . make literally every movie into a realistic depiction of modern people in your hometown having family trouble like the Skywalkers do?

It should be obvious from that alone why the abstraction.

But here I’d like to reference the words of Paul Gresty. Followers of my blog know about my work on Kickstarter projects. Paul Gresty is the author of Arcana Agency: The Thief of Memories, and, most recently, I’ve been working with him on Fabled Lands: The Serpent King’s Domain.

He has other projects including The Frankenstein Wars. You can guess “what this one’s about.” Obviously, as the creators put in their tagline, it’s about:

. . . war and horror, heroes and villains, and the soul of humanity at stake!

But I also like to keep quoting Neil Gaiman, who once put in The Sandman:

“Never trust the storyteller. Only trust the story.”

What’s hiding in the story? Regrettably, neither Paul nor I can find the exact quote anymore, but Paul once described The Frankenstein Wars like this:

[You ask the implications of a world where soldiers are stitched together from corpses. Soldiers become second-class citizens, eminently expendable, and so treated as “lesser.” However, the terror has another layer: with a single bullet, you could join them. You too could be the second-class citizen.]

There you have it.

By stepping into the story world — which is to say, literally any world other than a realistic depiction of modern people in your hometown — you can explore ideas beyond your expectations. If you in the real world are a “first-class person all the way,” how could you possibly be a second-class citizen? Why would you care? Goodness, why would you read a realistic depiction of real-world second-class citizens? Too depressing — or, if you are an egotist, too irrelevant.

But then you read The Frankenstein Wars and you are forced to think about it from a perspective you’ve never known.

Let us pause for a moment to appreciate the reason all fantastic literature in all of history exists.

No, really. By this mark we have justified all fiction, all theater, all campfire stories, all make-believe, if only you listened closely enough to find a point. The theatrics enable you to learn life lessons and develop empathy in situations that would be impossible if you restricted yourself to your existing down-to-earth life.

Hence I encourage approaching a tale on its own terms.

This applies to other things, too.

I’ve said before that I bought Unreal Tournament for the story. It sounds impossible, since surely all gaming is about the flashy special effects, and first-person shooters even moreso. Not so; and I just might have another entire post to make about how proud I am of today’s gaming and its ability to express story.

Which I believe will be my next post.

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The last time I tried to write several brief tidbits from arbitrary story worlds, I proclaimed it too difficult to give “a point” to each one. Now I will do better.

As I said a post prior, I am taking one step into the meta above my own writing. I have filled this blog with writing exercises using randomly-generated features such as gender of character, number of character traits or dimensions, specific traits from a list of 100, names from my Space Trader game, equipment from my non-published loot tables, and story genre. Typically I would designate a point or theme to give a purpose to this writing. Now I have enough “points” that I can randomize these as well and have a writing exercise that, to use technical terminology, shall be completely whacked out.

So to begin.

I will use RANDOM.ORG as usual. All the above will be allowed to vary, including character geometry from one to three dimensions. The loot tables were generated for a post-apocalyptic setting, so I will need to rewrite their content and meaning basically every time, but the process of doing so may be helpful in establishing the character’s role. Of course, everything gets blurry anyway when doing these things: I’m reminded that the names from my Space Trader game are a mass of mixed-culture references.

For fun, after preparing each 2-D or 3-D character, I will flip a virtual coin to see if I follow up with a “1-D creature class” in the same story world, like those I did in my first character design exercise and others that took after it. I get:

Paranormal story world. “Don’t betray all of your friends, or else you’ll be a nasty person and you might die.”
Two-dimensional character. Male. Traitorous, noble. Craft materials.
One-dimensional creature class. Doomsaying. Bandages.

Mechs story world. “Can the darkness ever truly leave our hearts?”
Three-dimensional character. Male. Scoundrel, depressed, disgruntled. Hammers and wrenches.
One-dimensional creature class. Formal. Fists.

Fantasy story world. “Pride goeth before a fall.”
Three-dimensional character. Female. Bookish, restless, sarcastic. Spell components.

Science horror story world. “One fears the unknown.”
One-dimensional character. Male. Desperately hopeful. Mutant fungus and herbology.

. . . This is going to be something else. Again, if you are interested in anything I post and want to use it somewhere (such as in a tabletop gaming session), just ask me. I like to know where my children are.

2-D character: Pygmalion Rama. (My random rolls said “Galatea,” but I figured on a male character at this time.)
Traits: Traitorous, noble.
Description: Once a figure on a mystical court of intrigue halfway between our world and the next, with the bearing to match. He is pale and his expensive attire has only the slightest rents and tears.
Dialogue: Written – “A walk of the grounds revealed three small children from a nearby school playing at the dead. I must send word to their parents.”
Written – “When I occasion to pass by the paintings I am reminded of old associates memorialized within. Or, in one case, immortalized.”
Written – “The advent of new arrivals has motivated me to put on my face and greet them with the aid of my assistants. They have agreed, quite reasonably, to undertake certain tasks for me. Perhaps it is time to revisit my crafts.”
Written – “It was clear that the new arrivals would rummage about my writings without decorum. They are a curious sort. It is for this reason that I have chosen the crafted word, not the blended paint, for my binding agent.”

1-D creature class: Bound Ghosts.
Trait: Doomsaying.
Description: If it made sense for a mummy also to be a ghost, then mummy ghosts is what these would be. Bound to their master by mystical cloth wrapped to a precise formula, these men and women now handle the material aspects of running Pygmalion’s property. Such as speaking with visitors whatsoever.
Dialogue: Intro – “Welcome, I regret, to the Edmund Estates. The master may be with you shortly, and we may have his word for you shortly thereafter.”
Idle – “Oh, not again.”
Idle – “The master surely has a plan for this one.”
Idle – “It is only a matter of time . . . ”
Idle – “When will they learn?”

3-D character: Itokawa Nyx.
Traits: Scoundrel, depressed, disgruntled.
Description: The rogue mechanic of the Western Wastes, a sturdy man with pencil-thin mustache and baggy clothes like an old martial arts gi. As a side project, he has over-crafted one oversized hammer to give him negotiating power when customers come calling.
Dialogue: Intro – “You want me to fix your ride. I know it. That’s the only reason you’re standing in my sunlight. Well, do you plan on trading fair and square, or is this one of those deals we have to beat out with a hammer?”
Idle – “Never seen a deal that didn’t go south. For somebody.”
Idle – “Still waiting for a real payout.”
Event – “Now you expect me to rebuild this whole thing, don’t you? Do you have the cash?”
Event – “Looks like you’re bleeding out real bad there. Oh, well. Scrap is scrap.”

1-D creature class: Gladiatorial Bots
Trait: Formal.
Description: The most polite blood sport competitors in the world, just without the blood. They are the unmanned combatant robots that round out a mech arena match against live pilots.
Dialogue: Idle – “Online now, sir or madam. Ready to mirror your most savage desires.”
Idle – “Battle is always invigorating! For whomever still stands at the end.”
Fight – “Pardon!”
Fight – “Like so!”
Fight – “Oof, good one!”

3-D character: Crescentia Pathin.
Traits: Bookish, restless, sarcastic.
Description: A retailer of spell components outside the schools of wizardry, robed and spectacled as proper. She has to deal with the college crowd just as with foolhardy adventurers.
Dialogue: Intro – “You there. What do you get when you know half the secrets of the arcane, have half the shares in a mana mine, and owe half a college tuition? Customers.”
Idle – “If you’re not buying, good for you.”
Idle – “A book or a walk: stick to the healthy choices, I say.”
Event – “Do you know how to use that?”
Event – “Don’t come to me when you blow it up in your face.”
Event – “I could demonstrate, but I’ll just let you break it yourself.”

1-D character: Igor Zeus. (I said that these names were a chaotic mix.)
Trait: Desperately hopeful.
Description: One more worker for Quadra Corp, the premier company in fungal hybrid technologies. He and his many labcoated colleagues can be found standing near computer terminals, banging on doors, or being menaced by unleashed fungoid horrors.
Dialogue: Intro – “I don’t care who you are. It’s just one more mystery to me. And to me, the only way to stay safe is to know as little as possible. Now get out of my way.”
Idle – “If I can reach command, I’ll be fine.”
Idle – “They’re sprouting. They’re sprouting!”
Idle – “We can stop these things, can’t we?”
Event – “The lights are out! And what’s that sound?”
Event – “Oh, no. They’re not my colleagues. Whatever they are now, start shooting!”

. . . There! Having only a small amount of space for each theme, I came to see where communicating the point of the story or game would take significantly more effort than I could provide: some dialogue wound up being about the character’s goals, some about the overall point, and then for anything else I was out of room. As was expressed in the talk on character geometry I’ve referenced throughout this blog, further dimensions require further space to express. You cannot fit a believable three- or four-dimensional person into a bit role with one speech. Likewise, conveying the point of the writing takes more than a few words.

Unless, I suppose, one were to take up poetry. That is its own topic for its own time.

This blog is intended to be about writing, and my dimensional character design exercises are a big part of what I have online. There are also pieces where I get ideas out of my head. I’ve referenced thoughts such as those of Sir Terry Pratchett on the point and the plot to try to give them meaning. And I’ve created content I can use into the future, including a list of 100 traits or dimensions for my characters, helpful alongside other tools like the random generators in my Space Trader game, and, of course, nothing’s stopping me from re-using elements like my brief genre generator list. Why not do the inevitable?

It’s time to go meta.

This happens all the time. Sometimes it’s called divergent thinking; or at least I recall the label being applied to the Gordian knot in Alan Moore’s Watchmen. I know divergent thinking as the psychology term for “thinking creatively,” compared against convergent thinking. By divergent, we mean going from one situation out to all its possibilities; by convergent, we mean taking all different sources to bear on one situation.

But as I understand it, going “divergent” doesn’t always mean going “above” or “beyond” or “meta,” in the same way that a rectangle isn’t always a square. By going meta I speak of stepping above the situation. Going above the Gordian knot, we are led to ask why we ever tried to untie it; or, more broadly, why we ever approached a problem on the same level as it was posed.

Puzzles and legends often require a meta thought. You must make winning moves in a series of games, but are you even playing the correct games? You must see what has changed from one image to another, but see nothing; perhaps what has changed is yourself?

People “go meta” in comedy all the time. “A priest, a rabbi, and a minister walk into a bar. The bartender says ‘What is this, some kind of joke?'”

If all of my writings have had “a point,” why don’t I go meta and consider the points?

Mini-essay-within-an-essay over, here are all the points I have presented online. Starting in my original essay (the “in principle” part), we have:

“Don’t betray all of your friends, or else you’ll be a nasty person and you might die.”

At least, that was my summary of much simple moviemaking. Then in the rest of that discussion (the “in practice” part), we have:

“One fears the unknown.”

“One must change or die.”

“One must grow up or die.”

“One overcomes anger through empathy.”

When I launched my creative posts with my very first character design exercise:

“Pride goeth before a fall.”

Then:

“You can’t choose your family.”

And then:

“Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”

And then:

“Too much light leads to blindness.”

And then:

“Humanity is measured by action, not form.”

When I changed gears to get a whole game design out of my head:

“Can the darkness ever truly leave our hearts?”

And at last:

“Violence begets violence.”

In developing my Space Trader game, I have compiled points that the Game Master may find useful in developing game campaigns. Some are already cited above. Others are:

“Dehumanization is the first step in murder.”

“One cannot ignore the interconnectedness of all things.”

“Ignorance divides.”

“No one tradition is true.”

“Humanity is the cause of its own problems.”

“The best defense is cooperation.”

“Money is the root of all evil.”

“You cannot force others to perfection, least of all by your own definition.”

This happens to be 20 points. Excellent. I’m sure that I could create more variety in content, but what I have works well for a random generator.

So now that I am all glorious and “meta,” having quantized the point of my writing itself, what will I do on this level? Write a character design exercise where I randomize absolutely everything presented above. This I will do in my next post.

Fabled Lands: The Serpent King's Domain Kickstarter project image

Following along inexorably from that last post, I and my associates in Megara Entertainment have brought our Kickstarter project to live-ness on the internet. I could have said “to life,” naturally (and grammatically), but granting the project such is the purpose of the funding. The project is “live.” Perhaps backers will bring it to life.

Yet I find myself speaking of contradictions once more: backers have already brought it to life. Whereas our project for The Way of the Tiger was funded in less than 48 hours, our current project has been funded in less than 45 minutes:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/57119387/fabled-lands-the-serpent-kings-domain

This is excellent and will allow us to focus on our main goals, which are to get extra funding to afford the needed art. Any such funding is a challenge when selling books, as discussed already by Dave Morris. Now I am dashing across the internet to talk with everyone, thank everyone, and catch up again with everyone when everyone does something behind my back. Business as usual for Kickstarter.

Fabled Lands: The Serpent King's Domain Kickstarter project image

Readers will have noticed by now that I post about Kickstarter on this blog. Among other things. But all that work with Megara Entertainment on Arcana Agency: The Thief of Memories, The Way of the Tiger, and Lone Wolf – The Board Game lends itself to posting. Among other things, they’ve consistently been my only posts with images.

So today we have presented the world with the “soft launch” of our imminent Kickstarter project, Fabled Lands: The Serpent King’s Domain. Yet again we are adapting and expanding a classic gamebook series, and this time it looks like I have the pleasure of working with the entire original team of authors and illustrators.

See this link:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/57119387/2100439267?token=488bd8fd

As I wrote over there,

Fabled Lands is a gamebook series, that special sort of solo role-playing where you read a story paragraph, make a decision about what you would like the hero to do next, and turn to some other page to read the results. This series is the first in history to be non-linear: players proceed at will back and forth between books, and each book represents not a story but a region. The story is up to the player to tell.

You can strive to overcome villains and monsters, or spend the whole game as a merchant trader plying the seas. Ordinarily, this sort of description would mean an open-world videogame to tax your computer’s processors; but Fabled Lands is a BOOK ON PAPER.

This I think is noteworthy. It’s in much the same sense as that essay I wrote on gamebooks: playing these games, I found myself struck by the implementation of gaming principles I knew to exist in videogames. I felt the freedom of choice and consequence that comes from walking around an electronic overworld and entering the dungeons I wished. One might ask, then, why I’d play a print Fabled Lands gamebook when I could just play a videogame; I’d have multiple answers, but one, inevitably, would be that I’d play both. Why wouldn’t I want to play all “well-programmed” games? The medium doesn’t change the admiration.

As before, the purpose behind this whole post is to announce how I shall be busy come next month. In fact, I’ve been busy for quite some time.

Though it’s amusing to consider this further too. Just recently I attended the wedding of a friend from the Lesser Known Gods, hinted briefly in my about page and my writing samples page. In speaking with his gaming friends, I was given a new name for all my work on Kickstarter: producer.

Producer? Sounds like I need to look up a job description or two. But yes, I have spent months dividing tasks into logical groups, managing people, maintaining a focus on a goal or vision for a project, raising awareness and funds, and, in the end, writing a lot of reports. If that’s a management position of some sort, then I suppose that explains why I’ve been so busy. Especially when no one here actually reports to me.

But as stated it’s generally been a pleasure. I hope this gaming news is of interest, as with all the others.

It is interesting and tricky to put so much on Kickstarter. Important to remember is that there are many ways to raise money and they are not all equal. For instance, the biggest Kickstarter videogame projects make millions of dollars, yet they need to warn backers that a million-dollar budget . . . is a small videogame budget. Then there are other sorts of productions, such as the books we in Megara Entertainment keep making. Author Dave Morris has a post on the Fabled Lands blog about Kickstarter and the impractical costs in publishing: to make enough Kickstarter profit off of books to pay everyone, you’ll need tremendous numbers of people to pledge for your books.

Recently, we started collaborating with Greywood Publishing to make Lone Wolf – The Board Game. That’s a domain change from game-in-a-book to game-on-a-board. How it is different? Mostly in that we are collaborating now and therefore communication needs to go through yet more people. The question of expenses is the same: per Dave, great masses of money would go into paying people for months of effort. It is fortunate that Gary Chalk personally wants to make the game, while Jamie Wallis of Greywood personally wants to prepare layout and publish it, and thus neither is a salaried employee. And then there’s me, the one who personally wants to share the excitement of Lone Wolf.

So we succeeded with what should be our bare monetary needs. We’ve said “thank you” all over the place, put together most everything for the final product, and kept posting project updates, not all of which really belong on this blog. The most relevant is my traditional “lessons learned” post.

I’ve posted these before: The Way of the Tiger I copied onto this blog while Arcana Agency: The Thief of Memories can be seen on the original Kickstarter. As per usual, I’m writing all this for people who want to go forth with a similar project. Who are those? Anyone for whom Dave’s words are a wake-up call, sure, but I like to think any reasonable reader can see where the principles are universal. Reading posts like these was incredibly helpful as I tried to understand Kickstarter, so I pass it along in case somebody in the future is saved some hassle. The post is online here and I copy it below:

Lessons learned

Let me start with . . .

A recap

I didn’t make up the stuff in those other two essays: almost all of it came from known Kickstarter and/or business principles. And it all applied to Lone Wolf:

Publicity is a full-time job. Kickstarter consumes your life and you will have no time to do anything else.

Finding the right audience means looking both outside and inside Kickstarter. Outside, there are communities dedicated to your areas of interest, and your challenge is to convince them to sign up for Kickstarter to pay you money. Inside, people have already taken the first step, and your job is to find the ones that care about your areas of interest.

All of this outreach requires politeness and care on your part. Many people will ignore you anyway (who wants to listen to ads?), but if you don’t care about the people you contact then they have even less reason to care about you.

Both “big name” recommendations and individual forum posters matter. Both big pledges and small pledges matter.

Early communication (like a soft launch) is important. Regular communication (including responding to feedback) is important.

And the mechanics of Kickstarter still matter: the natural flow from a “beginning rush” to a “final rush”; the attention from user profiles, the “Popular” category, or “Staff Picks” (though we didn’t get into the last one); the importance of a project video; and so on.

What happened this time: finding people

It was difficult and remarkable. First remember that Kickstarter is a publicity campaign, not a storefront. For each project I’ve kept a file of all “promotional material” I’ve posted on forums, e-mails I’ve sent to reviewers, and so on. Some pieces were applied with copy-and-paste to ten or twenty places. Even with that compression, it’s almost a hundred pages (single-spaced). We were featured (sometimes multiple times) on thirty-to-forty forums, blogs, and fellow Kickstarter projects, and an equal number said “sorry, not interested.” And this doesn’t even include Twitter and Facebook.

As I’ve said before, every single time we got a surge in new pledges I could point to somebody who posted about us. It was very predictable and precise. If, say, a new mention meant an extra $500 on the day it went live, then we reached almost 2/3 of our funding goal this way, with lingering effects as future visitors came by to see the posts. (And wow are we grateful: thanks again for spreading the word, everyone.)

Giving them a good welcome

I probably don’t have to tell you that having a professional artist helps in making a page attractive. We also took a lot of feedback from fans during our soft launch to improve the content.

One thing went better than it did in our last two projects: the project video. Kickstarter emphasizes this for making a connection with potential backers. For Arcana Agency, site stats showed only about 15% of people who started watching the video bothered to finish it. That went up to 20% for The Way of the Tiger. At its best, Lone Wolf saw 25% of plays complete, which sure says something.

One thing went worse: communication. At the base I mean internal communication within the team, but of course that hampered communication with you, the readers. Normally, working with Mikaël Louys online (this is Richard S. Hetley, here), we have to deal with a difference in time zones. Anything I needed urgently for The Way of the Tiger would suffer a one-day delay. That’s annoying but okay if you’re planning a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule of posting new material on Kickstarter.

When we started working with Jamie Wallis and Gary Chalk, it got worse. We all have full-time jobs. As noted, Gary has been suffering from fluctuating internet access. Anything urgent faced a two-to-three-day delay, and that just made things difficult. We were saved only by our advance planning (hooray, soft launch) and that fact that half of us were experienced in Kickstarter enough to keep posting anyway. (So, sorry for the delays in communication, and we’re grateful for your patience.)

What they gave in response

Elementary economics tells us that different people have different budgets, and if you sell products or services you’d be wise to offer choice to match. On Kickstarter, that means offering pledge rewards from just a few dollars up into the high reaches: if someone WANTS to pledge $1000, you’d jolly well better be ready for it.

What you kind backers gave to us was unexpected . . . inasmuch as I’ve never seen such a clear demonstration of the principle. The $3000 reward level accounted for around a sixth of total funding. The $50 reward accounted for around a sixth of total backers. The $65 reward accounted for around a sixth of both. The numbers go on and every pledge mattered. What if we’d left out one of those levels? If people couldn’t find something to match their interest (and budget) then we would have earned ourselves a nasty hole in funding.

Today and into the future

How do you think about project success? Unless you’re one of those lucky few who makes a million dollars, you measure “success” as “we made enough to cover our first guess for how much money we’ll need.” That’s what we did and now we can afford the first print run, covering backer rewards and providing stock to sell in a proper storefront in the future.

This lets me make a final point. If you had any doubt, the project and components will go on general sale in 2015. It’s alarming to note how, for all three of our Kickstarter projects, people have asked persistently “will there be any way to buy it after the project is over?” The answer is “of course.” My alarm comes in that some of these people are seasoned Kickstarter backers, and therefore there must be enough other projects where the answer is “no” for them to feel this doubt.

What kind of businessperson engages in a massive and stressful publicity effort for a retail product only to STOP selling the product? Ostensibly, on this site, your product just needs a “kickstart” and then it will live on. For some people this life is defined differently, such as those funding a theater renovation which has a discrete endpoint, but even then they intend to use their efforts to do yet further business in the future (in this example, doing productions in the theater).

We hope Lone Wolf will live on now that you’ve “kickstarted” it, that the remaining stock will find good homes in 2015, and that the game will be popular and profitable enough that all the expansions we’d started detailing in stretch goals (but didn’t yet reach) can be produced someday. That’s the plan.

So thank you, again, for helping make it all work thus far.

A bit of reading material came out of the Lone Wolf – The Board Game Kickstarter project. Actually, I can be more precise: a lot of material came out, and I can hope that people read a word or two. Back when we did Arcana Agency: The Thief of Memories, I observed that we on the team wrote more words in promo than are in the book we were trying to sell.

So, yes, I have a “lessons learned” post just like that last one from The Way of the Tiger, but before that I have an extra essay. This came when I tried to find something to say about the project to an unfamiliar audience. It’s long-since been posted online. And . . . I liked it. This is the sort of essay I want on my blog.

So here you go:

I love a good game. It could be anything. Clever little custom-dice game? Awesome. Social game with no props whatsoever? Cool.

Same goes for a good book or a good story. Who cares how many style buzzwords it has? Is it any good? Then it’s a good game, book, or story, and I’m glad I had a chance to meet it.

Which is why I was glad to be raised by gamebooks. You know, those Choose Your Own Adventure books where you flip back and forth between different pages based on where you want the plot to go? “Choose Your Own Adventure” is a brand name, and maybe you’ve heard more about Fighting Fantasy if you grew up in Europe. But hopefully, if you know about gamebooks at all, you’ve heard of Lone Wolf.

The Lone Wolf gamebooks, more than anything else, taught me how fantasy was supposed to be. Thanks to them I still think “armour” should be spelled with a “u” despite a lack of recent and personal British ancestry. In those books, heroes weren’t championed by “fighters” and “magic-users” — no, they called on monks and border rangers. There was a shocking minimum of green dragons, green-skinned goblins, and trolls with green blood that regenerated for no clear reason — instead there were shapeshifters, dark knights, and ships of drowned sailors that rose in undeath.

When I was a kid, I played gamebooks on the same days that I would play videogames. Now, why play an “interactive book,” filled with mechanisms and hacks to pretend it had the complexity of a computer, when I could play a game on the computer? Oh, I don’t know: maybe I just said I played both. Maybe you just read that sentence a moment ago.

“Why are you playing that?” Because if it’s good then it doesn’t matter how flashy it is. You enjoy it on its own terms.

It’s just like the specific microcosm of videogames. Computer technology advances, and each year there are ads for “the latest in cutting edge graphics!!!” One day we passed the threshold where default technology could power 3-D games, not just sprite-based games, and it’s only gone up from there. But if that’s true, then why are there any 2-D games still in existence? Why would Bioshock come out with its stunning 3-D world in 2007, and Aquaria come out in 2-D at the end of that same year?

Oh, I don’t know: maybe drop-dead gorgeous 2-D art is still drop-dead gorgeous, and Aquaria is still a “good game” just as Bioshock is. The invention of the car has not halted the advancement of the bicycle.

So to this day I enjoy a good gamebook, because, by definition, they’re “the good ones.” That’s why I and my buddies have been doing contemporary gamebook projects. Then, a few months ago, I heard chatter coming through about something different: Lone Wolf in a board game. A wargame, in fact, played on a board.

Hey, really? I like Warhammer 40,000. Is this like that? And made from Lone Wolf?

Eventually I got to playtest their print-and-play scenario. I was amazed. Here on my tabletop was a simulation of the game world I knew. And it played faster than any game of Warhammer 40k! Once I knew the rules, I was plowing (excuse me, “ploughing”) through a battle just as I’d read a book.

It felt just like my childhood. Sure, the setup was more “traditional” for a fantasy realm, involving the grey-skinned “Giaks” of Lone Wolf, who bear certain parallels to green-skinned “goblins.” Nevertheless I loved fighting Giaks, and I’d seen the art that said one day there might come Drakkarim (dark knights) and maybe even Helghast (undead shapeshifters).

And moreso, it was all drawn in 2-D art on stand-up figures!

Oh, I see where this is going. Oldstyle art for an oldstyle game world, right? Yup, that’s something I love. But when we started sharing this project online, we realized we would bump into the age-old question: “Why are you playing that?”

Of course, gaming technology advances, and one day we passed the threshold where gamers expected games to have 3-D miniatures by default. Well, sure, I’ve played Warhammer 40,000 — maybe even on the same day that I played a gamebook or a videogame. But what’s special here was that Gary Chalk, the artist who had brought life to the pages of Lone Wolf during my childhood — and, for that matter, to Redwall, and to HeroQuest, and to many other worlds that were richer for it — had spent 30 years becoming an even better artist. Bioshock . . . meet Aquaria. (Psst: my touchscreen tablet plays Aquaria. Think it would take Bioshock?)

I love a good game. Same goes for a good book or a good story. And the same goes for a good piece of art. It does not matter that I could buy some plastic miniatures from a gaming store downtown: there is a beauty to the hand-drawn art of someone who loves what he does. If it’s good, then it doesn’t matter if it meets the expectations . . . for some other type of art. You enjoy it on its own terms.

We are now trying to fund Lone Wolf – The Board Game via Kickstarter [ed.: obviously we’re done now] on the basis of a good game design at its core, a history of good gamebooks behind it, and a good artist at its helm. Think anybody will play it?

So far, looks like there are a few takers. And you’re welcome at my table when you’re in town.

Lone Wolf - The Board Game Kickstarter project image

Readers should be familiar with the routine. I announced recently that I and my associates in Megara Entertainment are deep in the guts of yet another Kickstarter project, this time the adaptation of the classic gamebook series Lone Wolf to a board game version. There was a little twist: this wasn’t an adaptation we were going to make. In fact, no one was going to make it in the future tense: the designer and artist had already created it 30 years ago when the gamebook series was still new.

As such, I wasn’t to be much of a writer or game designer this time around (at least in name), and instead editor and “Kickstarter manager.” I can tell you, “editing” and “managing” this Kickstarter page has meant a lot of writing and design. And image manipulation.

But at long last the project went live today:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1615043334/lone-wolf-the-board-game

It’s ploughing full speed ahead. And I have even more permission than usual to spell the word “ploughing” given how the Lone Wolf series was responsible for most of my love of British spelling in the first place. For those who still don’t know the subject matter, I’ll copy my blurb:

Now on Kickstarter: the first tabletop wargame/board game to be based on the classic gamebook series from the 1980’s. Lone Wolf is the story of the last of the Kai Lords, warrior monks who defend the land of Sommerlund against the Darklords and their minions. It is designed wholly by Gary Chalk, illustrator of Redwall, HeroQuest, and many other beloved worlds. Gary has 40 years of experience in wargaming, and backers will be pleased by how quickly it plays while still being a detailed simulation of the game world. Interested readers can see for themselves with a FREE downloadable print-and-play scenario and the beta rulebook, and can back the project through December 5.

There was a massive overhaul in response to soft launch feedback, and of course I personally care about the project anyway, so I would encourage any and all readers to visit the page and see what we’re doing. That’s Lone Wolf – The Board Game. You know where to find us.

(A concluding note: some of you may have detected a subtle shift in the header image between the last post and this one. Some of you may know something has changed, but be unable to point to it with certainty. That’s okay. Some of you didn’t revise the borders on every single project image over and over again for several hours.)

Lone Wolf box cover

Once again have we reached that special time of year, the time I rally to the Recettear-ian cry of “capitalism, ho!” and post directly on this blog about my work for pay. If you’re a reader, you’ve surely encountered my work for Megara Entertainment. We’ve done Kickstarter projects for our original gamebook Arcana Agency: The Thief of Memories and the eight-gamebook revival-and-expansion of The Way of the Tiger, where for both of which I managed the campaign and edited the text. My local website pages (About, et cetera) explain we are on a general gamebook theme, which is fine by me since I love the written word.

Yesterday marked the “soft launch” of our next Kickstarter project, coming in November: an adaptation of a classic gamebook to a new format, Lone Wolf – The Board Game.

See this link:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1615043334/1062942324?token=4dbe0a52

As I wrote over there,

you are Lone Wolf, the last of the Kai Lords. Or perhaps you are Prince Pelathar, heir to the throne of Sommerlund. Or maybe you are the infamous Giak warrior Kootak, sent by the Darklords to raze the land. Now you can be all of these . . . on your tabletop.

I hope you appreciate the advertisement.

The preview page explains the project fairly well, and there’s no sense in me gushing like I’m doing an infomercial on my own personal blog, so I will leave it at that.

I’ll comment, instead, on “what it all means.” I’ve posted multiple times now about the lessons learned from running these: here’s one and then here’s another (with a copy on this self-same blog here). To be more accurate, half the content of those posts is longstanding knowledge held by anyone in advertizing in general or Kickstarter in specific. The rest is surprised observations about the power of backer perception: I knew it was important, but who knew it was several-hundred-dollars-per-person important on a website where the most common pledge is $25?

Well, this time we’re trying to run a campaign using those same principles of community and word-of-mouth well in advance of the launch date, and hopefully there will be interest in our less-expensive items. Just like last time, the artwork alone is worth most any price: that box cover at the top of this post is just one example of the brilliance of the creator and illustrator, Gary Chalk. I’m thrilled to be able to work in such a great game world and with such creative people.

I’m also thrilled about the other part of “what it all means”: a project with a more discrete ending. Another lesson I learned from The Way of the Tiger is that, yes, eight books will take you nearly a year to edit. For Lone Wolf, I will be editing the rulebook and helping further with development as needed.

Of course, Kickstarter will attempt to consume my life during the month of November. Therefore, just as with that last warning I gave a year ago, this is formal notice about how my “life” shall be “consumed” come that time. I hope such gaming news is of interest.

Why not keep rambling? Last time I wrote the basics about a world from my spare story and game files, using character geometry to add humanity and some playable content. Mostly gang members to beat up. But that’s okay, since really I was testing loot tables for a post-apocalyptic world, so put two and two together and I have enough for a playtest with friends.

I didn’t explain the “shadow creatures,” though, which are supposedly representative of the “darkness” inside humanity. You know, the whole point of the thing: “Can the darkness ever truly leave our hearts?” Today I’ll explain those creatures.

So! Shadow creatures!

If the super-subtle you-don’t-actually-know-this-from-the-start point of the thing is that these monsters are connected to our own human failings, then it’s time to get symbolic. Tons of people have taken the “seven deadly sins” and tried to manifest them in people or beasts, like the artist Joe England and his rabbit version. (Please take it as meaningful that I present this and only this.) For a videogame, it would be more like the monsters in The Suffering, which came about when certain foolhardy individuals asked Stan Winston Studio “Can you, I dunno, design monsters that are symbolically connected to means of execution?”

But I want human failings, so I go back to Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and the Inferno. Not his poem, though: my own. After devouring the Inferno in high school, I took it upon myself to write a new one, and the result was the longest poem I ever wrote. I think it even sounded good in a couple places. Not all the “sins” were amenable to game adaptation, so today I choose these five: betrayal, exploitation, greed, sadism, and zealotry.

I’m neither Joe England nor Stan Winston, so I don’t really know how they look, but probably each beast is a scrawny/hulking/gangly/muscular brute/wretch of some sort. In dark colors. More important is how they behave. They are intelligent, most act slowly and deliberately upon spotting prey, and all use a thematically-appropriate means of approach. They will gladly kill and eat you, but each also has a special way of “catching” you: if you succumb to their themed failing (“sin”) while one is hunting you, then you’re in trouble. The very next instant you stand in a shadow, you will fall through reality. The only way to avoid this fate is to kill that monster while remaining in the light. Obviously, this morality-themed “catching” mechanic works best in a pencil-and-paper RPG, with fleshed-out details for what happens when you’ve “vanished into the shadows,” how you get back out, and what lingers afterward. I’m thinking effects like Wizard’s Twilight from Ars Magica or Frag from Continuum.

Anyway, to log those creature details. Again, if you are interested in anything I post and want to use it somewhere (such as in a tabletop gaming session), just ask me. I like to know where my children are.

Betrayal.
Behavior: Lure prey into attractive-looking ambushes to kill and eat them. Prepare dead ends with lots of light so they look safe. Open doors and windows to provide tempting escape routes, then make noises (subtle or scary) to channel victims along.
Catches those who: Leave behind companions in a fight. Lie to get ahead when cooperation is possible.

Exploitation.
Behavior: Set humans to kill each other so as to feast on their remains. Identify those who don’t wish to be noticed (intruders in hostile territory) and make a loud commotion to ruin their stealth, then hide while fighting ensues. Unlock points of entry in a gang’s lair to leave a route for intruders.
Catches those who: Send others to face risks they refuse to face. Use a human shield.

Greed.
Behavior: Devour human food and steal their supplies, then wait patiently for the victims to weaken before striking. Learn what humans value and quietly raid stashes while defenders are out. Locate further resources and despoil them if victims approach.
Catches those who: Sacrifice a companion for material gain. Destroy anything or anyone because “If I can’t have this, no one will.”

Sadism.
Behavior: Use hit-and-run tactics, crippling victims before granting the finality of death. Engage in direct assault, switching from target to target quickly after a strike. Target both humans and their supply stashes, and in the case of food and resources either devour or despoil them.
Catches those who: Kill for amusement. Injure an individual or destroy resources to “make a point.”

Zealotry.
Behavior: Bluntly assault prey, destroying the victims themselves and all signs of humanity’s presence. Use no subtlety, tearing down walls and throwing furniture to keep victims terrified and in their place. Deface corpses to the same end.
Catches those who: Kill for a vendetta, even against the shadow creatures. Evict companions based on ideology.

(“Kill a surrendering opponent” should be in there somewhere, but I’m not sure where yet.)

I won’t write any dialogue for these monsters, but effectively the above themes could be one-dimensional character geometry. Simple enough. And if this were a printed RPG product, then the “catching” mechanic would be part of the basic draw: “Be judged by your actions” and such on the back cover of the book.

Sure, players are pretty good at figuring out criteria and would try to avoid the “sins.” Good game design here must present a cost-benefit analysis. Many unethical actions are beneficial in a post-apocalyptic world, which gamers know as they’ve seen movie “heroes” be led to betray their friends, or played games where the system explicitly let them use a human shield (“exploitation”). The related costs can appear low or manageable since a creature needs to be present before crime results in punishment, and creature frequency is impacted by eclipse status. If this were a pencil-and-paper RPG, perhaps character generation could demand the player choose one flaw they must risk exposing: perhaps an RPG character must have tendencies towards betrayal, exploitation, greed, sadism, or zealotry, just as Unknown Armies has a Passion system.

So what then about my ethical obligations as a game designer? I keep saying that “games are culture,” and apparently right now I’m trying to get gamers into a “morality play” of some sort. That’s a topic that deserves more attention, and I reserve it for next time.