Author Archives: okcstephens

Writing Basics: The First Draft

Your first draft doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s.

Yes, there’s a time and place where you need to be able to share your ideas with editors, developers, playtesters, and so on.

And, yes, it’s worth reading up on how other people draft and outline and process their work, to see if those techniques are useful to you.

But your FIRST draft doesn’t have to be anything more than a starting point. I, at least, never worry too much about what the final product is going to be when starting my first draft. I throw ideas at the page, and see what sticks. Often I have half-finished sentences I abandon because my brain finds something better.

Maybe you work that way. Maybe you don’t.

Just don’t let concern about your first draft being *right* sideline you from WRITING.

You can fix, change, revise anything you want in a second draft.

But only if the first draft happens.

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#101Mimics, the First Fifty!

Last month I spent some time on social media thinking up 101 unusual options and encounters for mimics, under hashtag  #101MIMICS.  Was it a good idea to take time to write up 101 ideas for unusual encounters with mimics? Well, you’re reading this, aren’t you?!

So if you want to hunt down all 101 mimics, they are still available on my Facebook and Twitter. But here are the first 50 of them, to give you a good chunk of mimic all in one place.

My Patreon backers get even more! All my mega-patrons will get a PDF in a few days that has all my free content from September, including the 101 Mimics, but I also wanted to compile these in one post for anyone interested in them. So all my patrons have access to a Patreon post with 101 Mimics, plus I added ONE more mimic encounter idea as a bonus, at the end of that post!

So if you want more mimics (and similar material as time goes on), go join my Patreon!

#101MIMICS

  1. Mimic as the keystone in an arch (build by mimic minions). When it attacks and jumps free not only it there a bitey mimic, the room’s ceiling collapses on you.
  2. Mimic treasure map. The mimic pretends to be a treasure map that leads you to am ambush of the mimic’s allies. The mimic changes this location as needed to keep the news from getting out.
  3. Mimic bandage. It just quietly drinks your blood when you wrap it around your wound.
  4. Mimic haute couture. The mimic rents itself out to be brand-new, impossible-without-living-cloth high-end outfits and shoes that fit perfectly, match your coloration, hair, and jewelry, and you don’t have to put in a closet after wearing once. Hourly or daily rates available.
  5. Mimic rope. It waits until you are using it in a life-or-death situation, then extorts you with greater payment or it withdraws its (literal) support.
  6. Mimic golem: Easiest to pretend to be a wood golem or clay golem. You think it’s a construct, but it’s actually an aberration, giving it a distinct tactical advantage.
  7. Mimic rock at edge of common rest-stop campsite. Look, people are SUSPICIOUS of treasure chests these days, but no one looks twice at a rock that happens to be near where their head is going to be when they sleep.
  8. Mimic false bottom of a chest. Go ahead, check the chest for signs it’s a mimic all you want. then, once you are inside and your guard is done, and you get excited you’ve spotted a false bottom…
  9. Mimic hanging tapestry. May rent itself out to high-end castles as a magic every-changing tapestry that also shouts an alarm when people find the concealed door behind it, or may drop down on unsuspecting adventurers looking behind it for a concealed door. Or both.
  10. Mimic trash-can private investigator. You can learn a LOT about someone by sorting through their trash, and if they give it to you there’s no expectation of privacy.
  11. Mimic Spike at the Bottom of a Pit. If you fall into the pit and still look fine, it ignores you as too tough to handle. If you fall into the pit and seem badly injured or incapacitated…
  12. Mimic bookcase wizard. People have been placing powerful and dangerous books on it in the forbidden section of the library for decades.
  13. Mimic altar. Honestly, a faithful devotee of a god that has decided to serve as an altar. Of course, if you come to DESECRATE that temple…
  14. Mimic Kitchen Table. Mostly just eats scraps when no one is looking. But may be in trouble since it is now so fat, it doesn’t really fit in the same space anymore…
  15. Mimic Mirror in a Vampire’s Employ. Look, some vampires care how they look!
  16. Mimic Siege Tower. Always the right size and shape to reach the top of a wall, able to become a bridge to get over a moat, and able to be healed or buffed against fire with “1 target” spells.
  17. Mimic Wagon. Mostly lets your draft animals pull it along (while it dozes off), but for an extra fee and turn into a boat to cross rivers, walk itself out of mud, and so on.
  18. Mimic Wine Barrel. Takes a nip now and then, but mostly stays sober so it can eat the occasional vagrant that wonders by late at night, who no one will miss.
  19. Mimic Wishing Well. I mean, people just THROW money into it! Why risk combat when you can get paid to sleep, then go buy any food you want later?
  20. Mimic Coffin. Sneak into undertaker’s (or cut deal with them). Get corpse placed indie me. Eat it. Dig my way out of grave, making people panic about ghouls. Sneak back to undertaker’s.
  21. Mimic Iron Maiden. Torturers put people in me, I drink their blood, and they are kept alive to go back into me again and again.

Mimic smuggler. Can look like any crate, fake any needed seals or markings, hide among other crates and shuffle from warehouse to warehouse and hold to hold as needed.

  1. Mimic roulette wheel. Doesn’t detect as magic or illusion, but can still make sure the house gets more than its cut (or, if smuggled in as a ringer, it’s partner can take a huge bite out of the house).
  2. Mimic Spymaster Confessional. Look, if there’s a place people are going to just whisper their secrets anyway…

(Lots of other Mimic Spy possibilities, too.)

  1. Mimic sleeping bag guard hireling. Hires itself out to protect travelers. It can sleep during the day, eat all your leftovers, and quietly watch over you while you sleep at night, while being the perfect size and warmness for you.
  2. Mimic is a single wheel in a rented wagon. It can thus “fall off” at any time to make the wagon vulnerable to ambush, and attack from inside the defensive perimeter once the ambush begins.
  3. Mimic weapon rack. With luck, you disarm yourself and give it your weapons before the fight starts, and it’s certainly armed.
  4. Mimic as obviously trapped secret door. Everyone moves away from the rogue in case the trap goes off, leaving the rogue alone with the mimic.
  5. Mimic table in room convicts meet with lawyers. Might be spy for illicit law enforcement, or might be enforcer for the thieves’ guild ensuring people keep their yap shut.
  6. Mimic cloak. Rules a gang of cloakers who think it is a highly evolved version of themselves.
  7. Tiny mimic sheath for dueling rapier. One of two. Everything seems fine when your foe selects one of them, but once the fight starts, the mimics don’t let your foe even draw his weapon.
  8. Mimic fishing pole. Mostly works as advertised, but when hungry just eats a fish which you think is “one that got away.”
  9. Mimic emulating a corpse. When it starts moving and eating things, everyone thinks it’s an undead. But it’s not.
  10. Mimic big overstuffed chair. Is a consulting detective, but keeps hiring someone to sit in the chair and play the public role of detective, so no one suspects their cases are being solved by a mimic listening in.
  11. Mimic crystal ball. Works with fake psychic to show clients what they want to see, but can’t actually tell the future.
  12. Mimic workbench. Friend and ally to renowned craftsman, acts as his guard and assistant, moving tools to be in reach as needed.
  13. Mimic guillotine psychopath. Just wants to kill people, so as long as the revolution feeds its bloodshed, acts like a guillotine. If anyone tries to reign in the mob rule, sneaks out to kill that person.
  14. Mimic crossbow. Works with its hunter. Loads itself, can even fire itself as needed.
  15. Mimic printing press. Always well informed, and can tweak things it prints to move its own narrative or plots forward.
  16. Mimic sail. Self-trimming, self-furling, heals if damaged, and can help defend the ship if attacked.
  17. Mimic lump of clay. Works with fake sculptor to allow the sculptor to appear to be a great artist, then sneaks off with sculptor once a commission is paid.
  18. Mimic high-end furniture from antique store. Gets bought and placed in rich house. Waits to see where their valuables are. Steals them blind while antique dealer has alibi. Sneaks back to look like different high-end furniture at shop.
  19. Mimic banker’s or merchant’s scale. Check for false weights and magic all you want, it can still claim your valuable are 1-2% lighter than they really are, getting its merchant partner an extra profit margin.
  20. Mimic rock full of veins of gold and silver. Sits in a mine its partner wants to sell. Makes sure the potential buyer “happens” to see it, still wedged into the wall. Great for cycling through multiple played out mines.
  21. Mimic pile of hay. Only good for some seasons, but great way to hide in plain sight, and local children often sneak off to play near you, making them easy targets.
  22. Mimic outhouse. Perfect for catching prey with their paints down.
  23. Mimic dressmaker’s dummy. Can be the exact size and shape (and even weight) the dressmaker needs, often happy to work for scraps of cloth (leather, cotton, and other biomass). Plus, gets to feel like a pretty, pretty mimic.
  24. Mimic periscope. Fits in any shape, crack, or around any corner, can show you what it sees, and even report on what it hears.
  25. Mimic game table. Can play chess with you, or help you subtly cheat against others.
  26. Mimic elevator. Crawls up and down (and even sideways) though the large castle, giving easy access quickly in return for a fair daily wage.

My Patreon: The Silver Lining

Well, you crazy folks did it. You pushed my Patreon over the $714 mark, my first monthly GOAL, which I have had since 2016, and never gotten closer than halfway before now.

So, I can now (starting today), “budget a guaranteed amount of time into my freelance schedule, allowing me to post at least one 750-word or longer piece of setting or fiction material every Monday, and 2 microrules (Microfeats, Spell Tweets, or similar very-short RPG rule ideas) every Tuesday-Friday.”

I also need to figure out my next goals. Sure, bringing in $1500/month to support my random writings seems impossible–but then $714 always felt like a stretch as well. More news on that soon.

Obviously I am extremely grateful to my backers, new and pre-existing, and everyone who has boosted, linked, promoted, and generally made a big deal of the fact I write things and people can help fund that directly. Since the job that my wife Lj and I moved to Indiana for has dried up many friends and fans have told me they wished they could do more. But it is clear that the efforts people have made on our behalf is what’s lead to this point, where my Patreon is a noteworthy part of my freelance income.

So what is the money going towards? Right now the time I am carving out for Patreon-supported writing is paid for by this income, which is going to go directly to finding a stable health insurance solution for my family.

And now, of course, what you are all paying me for– Game Content! Keeping with the theme of today I have written up a Silver Lining feat. Or, rather, since Silver Linings come in lots of different forms, I have written three different versions of it, for three of my favorite different RPGs.

Silver Lining (Pathfinder 1st Ed)
When things look bad, something else always works out for you.
Benefits: When you roll a natural 1 on an attack roll or a saving throw in circumstances where a typical character could not take 10 on a skill check, you gain 1 resolve point. As a reaction when you next fail an attack roll or saving throw you may spent this resolve point for an immediate reroll without taking an action. If the d20 die result of the reroll is 1-10, add 10 to your total result. You can only have 1 resolve point at a time, and if not used it goes away when you next qualify to regain uses of daily abilities (even if you do not actually have daily abilities to regain).\

Silver Lining (Pathfinder 2nd Ed)
When things look bad, something else always works out for you.
Benefits: When you suffer a critical failure on an attack roll or saving throw, as a reaction you may choose to either heal a number of HP equal to your level, or regain one Focus Point.

Silver Lining (Starfinder)
When things look bad, something else always works out for you.
Benefits: When you roll a natural 1 on an attack roll against a significant foe, or on a saving throws against a significant foe, as a reaction you may spent 1 Resolve Point to regain a number of Hit Points and a number of Stamina Points equal to your level. You cannot regain more of either than you are currently missing.

Silver Lining for Fantasy AGE

I am also now the Fantasy AGE developer for Green Ronin, so I’m posting this *very* rough, *very* unofficial version of Silver Lining as a Talent for that game system.

SILVER LINING
Classes: Mage, Rogue, and Warrior
Requirement: None
When things go badly for you, it’s usually a sign that something good is also about to happen.
Novice: When a foe using a stunt with a SP cost of 3 or more against you, the next time you gain SP, you gain 1 more than usual. You never gain more than 1 extra SP from Silver Lining.
Journeyman: Silver Lining now functions when a foe using a stunt with a SP cost of 2 or more against you.
Master: Silver Lining now functions whenever a foe uses a stunt against you.

Want to help with my Silver Lining?
I’m back to being a full-time freelancer, which means arranging for stability, health insurance, retirement options, and so on, is extremely difficult.

So if you found any of this useful or entertaining and you’d like to join the growing community of folks supporting the creation of more such content, check out my Patreon!

Just a couple of dollars a month from each of you will make a huge difference.

Two-Sentence Supers

Not every supers character needs a lot of backstory. In fact when you get into B-Teams, Caped Best Buddies, Great-Lakes Groups, X-treme X-amples, Tri-County Taskforces, and Substitute Heroes, often about all you need for a quirky, minor super character is two-sentences.

These concepts can be used as quick descriptions for background characters that may not ever need full stats, or jumping-off points for more detailed descriptions. They aren’t necessarily “joke” characters, just nontraditional and less likely to take center stage for various reasons.

Alewife: Alewife is a stern mother of five who is the strongest in a long line of monosaccahakenetic women able to generate and manipulate honey and honey byproducts, including ale. She does not use her powers for parties, unless one of her children (by birth or fierce mommabear adoption) is getting married or turning 16.

Bear-B-Que: Bear-B-Que is a chubby, cheerful, hirsute, gay man who can actually breath fire and (as a professional chef) make ribs that make people think they are breathing fire. Can also cast shade, but that doesn’t appear to be a superpower.

Drakkar: As a child, Drakkar ate a piece of a viking longship his parents were excavating at an archaeological dig, and now he can transform into one (from 20-60 feet long, which can fly, and has a “kick-ass” dragon masthead). He also fronts an eponymous heavy metal rock band.

Hotspot: Hotspot can always connect any device she is holding to the nearest radio tower, satellite pickup, and wireless connection–even through Faraday cages and solid stone. She most often plays “girl in the chair” to low-level heroes, giving advice and overwatch.

Prybar: Prybar has unbreakable, irremovable, unbendable fingernails. They are often a big ragged, since they are nearly impossible to trim (she has to use her own nails to file her nails).

Quiff: Quiff volunteered to be a human test for a receding hairline treatment. He is the only survivor of the test, and while he is still an aging, overweight man, he now has augmented strength and durability (though not enhanced endurance–he’s good for maybe a minute of fighting between rests), and a huge lock of thick, nearly-indestructible, brightly-colored prehensile hair on his forehead that can lift half a ton and extend up to 30 feet.

Sheba: Sheba is a highly evolved colony of bees–not a sapient queen bee who rules a hive, but the hive itself has become a distributed intelligence able to communicate and act collectively. She can do anything a hive of bees with group human intelligence can do, and is an active environmentalist.

Slack: Slack’s skin is infinitely flexible and stretchy, able to extend away from the rest of the body, which is otherwise normal. If cut free, the removed skin rots almost immediately and the wounded skin heals just as quickly.

Sudden-Oven Man: He can summon an over…. suddenly. Prefers charity work over superheroics but is willing to pitch in when needed. (You can read an interview with him here.)

Ten-Point: Ten-point is a seven-foot tall man with a full rack of stag horns, stag feet, and considerably enhanced speed, strength, and endurance. He works as a park ranger most of the year, but not during hunting season (no amount of bright orange makes him safe when it’s hunting season), when he does more in-town heroics and volunteer work.

THE PATRON
The Patron helps freelance writers pay the bills, and this is a superhero YOU can be!

I’m back to being a full-time freelancer, which means, ever word I write has to justify itself in time taken vs. money made.

So if you found any of this useful or entertaining and you’d like to join the growing community of folks supporting the creation of more such content, check out my Patreon!

Just a couple of dollars a month from each of you will make a huge difference.

 

Career Planning. “Now What?” (Part One)

I’m at a major crossroads in my career, and not one that looks like I expected it to just a few days ago. So, I ask myself an important question in this first post of two on Career Planning.

It’s a question that comes up all too often, and that there’s not much guidance for. Not “how do I break in,” or “how can I do a better job,” but the much more basic “now what?”

It’s a place I have found myself many times over more than two decades, but to be honest I thought I was done asking it for a while. When I took a full-time staff position with Paizo, my expectation was that I’d be there at least a decade. But you can’t always predict what opportunities come along (or how they’ll turn out), and you need to analyze them based on your current situation, not your best guess from 5 years ago.

Sometimes you just need to take stock and see if your current, stable situation is doing what you need it to, or if improvements could be made. Sometimes you move across the country because your spouse got an amazing job that ceases to exist after 90 days with almost no warning.

So, my Paizo job made the “now what” question irrelevant only on the macro scale. I still needed to have a plan for growth within Paizo (and becoming Starfinder Design Lead was a huge step for me in that regard), and I had to keep an eye on what I was doing as side-gigs (which is one reason I had to shuffle those so often–side gigs must be treated with respect, but they can’t take so much effort they damage your performance on your main career path), but in general I knew where the next set of paychecks was coming from, and who I was going to be doing most of my work for over the next 6 months, and where I would be sitting my butt most often.

I do not regret deciding my family’s needs were no longer in good alignment with Paizo’s opportunities for me, though I am going to miss not only the stability it afforded, but also the friends I have made and the amazing coworkers I have learned from and grown with. And, obviously, I didn’t expect my move to turn out the way it did and would have handled things differently if I’d thought this result was possible in this timeframe. But the fact is I am in Indiana now, and while I expect Paizo to continue to be part of my career for the foreseeable future, that situation is a freelance relationship rather than a regular paycheck.

I moved without a full-time situation preplanned for myself, and the stable job I thought would remove the pressure of needing to spin up my career quickly has turned to vapor. So I come to a place creative careers often do.

I have to ask myself, “Now what?”

I’ve done this before, of course. When I was laid off from Wizards of the Coast in 2001. When 3.5 came out, and 4e, and Pathfinder 1st ed. Both when I joined up with and then was bought out from Super Genius Games. When I was offered a regular gig doing Freeport for Green Ronin, and when I left that. When I started Rogue Genius Games, and became involved with Rite Publishing. Each of those moments came just before, or just after, that crucial questions about what’s next.

So, how do you answer that question? It takes some analysis, some planning, and some guesswork.

1. Process Your New Reality

Ideally your new reality is what you were hoping for, such as when I got a full-time job with Paizo. I had that rarest of unicorns — a full-time job (with benefits) in the game industry. But even in that case, I should have taken more time to settle into that new position, after 13 years of full-time freelancing, before I took on any additional projects. I thought that since I knew how long it takes me to write and produce game content, and I knew how much of that Paizo expected from me, I knew what my new reality was like. But there’s a big difference between being a freelancer and going to an office 5 days a week, and while I’d held a staff job before, more than a decade of changes in technology and best practices, and working for a different company, meant I wasn’t as prepared as I thought.

I adjusted, and it was fine. But it would have been better if I had gotten a feel for things first, and considered how to augment that situation afterwards.

However, if your new reality is caused by sudden, unexpected, terrible changes of circumstance, processing it may have a very different set of needs. If you have had the death of a partner or colleague, gotten laid off or fired, had a license pulled, or otherwise experienced a swift and unforeseen major setback, you have some emotional needs you need to deal with before you make big plans.

You can’t rush this. It’s going to take the time it takes, and that’s that. However, you can set some boundaries and expectations for yourself. I recommend giving yourself at least a few days, but also to maintain your route work and duties. Of course I am a depressive introvert, so I need to take specific steps to make sure my mental health is cared for, and I can’t give other folks specific advice how to do that.

My point is, take care of yourself and don’t make any huge decisions you don’t have to in the first few days of a big, negative change. And if you need more help than that, get it. Huge life changes are tough, and the most important part of your career is you.

2. Review

For me the first thing I do when I am at a crossroads is look backward.

It can be hard to properly assess projects and jobs while you are doing them. Since hindsight is supposed to be 20/20, the moment when you aren’t sure what to do next is a great time to look back over the past few years, and analyze what things went well, and which ones didn’t. This isn’t just about money, or ease of work, or satisfaction, though all those things should be considered. I also like to ask myself, if I knew then what I know now, would I still do the same things I did in the past few years.

I consider this a post-mortem, rather than a time to kick myself or dig up regrets. Often there was no way to know what unrelated things might make a great opportunity turn out terribly, or save a disaster from being much of a problem. But often there were subtle signs I could have paid more attention to, and thinking about what they might be helps me catch them in the future. I also want to analyze what I learned, what I enjoyed, what I made good money on… and what I feel burned out about, what opportunities I missed, and what I feel like has begun to put me in a rut either creatively, or in my career.

For example, I was between projects in 2012/2013, when Lou Agresta asked me if I wanted to write for the Heart of the Razor Adventure anthology for Razor Coast. Now, writing adventures is more work for me than the same word count of worldbuilding or rules expansion, so I often skip it. But, I realized I hadn’t written an adventure in years, and a number of people in the industry had begin to refer to me as a “rules guy.” So I accepted, to change up  my perception in the industry, and get myself out of a rut. (And it won an ENnie, and within a year of it coming out Paizo was asking me what adventure I had done recently I was most proud of… and I had something great to point to!)

On the other hand, right NOW I have written two adventures in the past 3 years (one yet to be released), and I don’t feel like it’s a good time for me to be working on slower products that aren’t (currently) an underserved area of my career. Different point in my life, different answer.

In a week we’ll look at Part Two, where I discussing looking forward, and making plans.

Part of My Plan is Patreon
Heya folks–I am back to being a full-time freelancer. Which means, ever word I write has to justify itself in time taken vs. benefit to my freelance career and/or money made.
So if you found any of this useful and you’d like to support the creation of more such content, check out my Patreon!

Just a couple of dollars a month from each of you will make a huge difference.

 

Game Masters, Chapter One

One. Those Above.

Maise Delores tapped the ‘record’ light hovering midair in front of her, making sure her host saw her do it. She could have set the device to record with just a though, but that would’ve been a violation of her streaming site’s official privacy policy. She almost never did that.

She smiled in a friendly manner, but didn’t really think it was necessary. Her host, Winton Classen, was famously among the calmest men in the public eye.

“Thank you for agreeing to an interview, Mr. Classen. My producer and your PR people will put together all the introductions and pleasantries, so we can skip right to the meat of what people want to know. Are you ready for that?”

Winton gave an easy smile in return, no less practiced or perfect than her own.

“Of course, Ms. Delores. I’m delighted to proceed however you feel is best. You’re the tastemaker, after all.”

“Thank you. All right, let’s get right into it. Your company offers vacations to the masses using ‘manufactured reality.’ So the difference between the neural virtual reality we’re all familiar with and manufactured reality is…?”

Winton’s voice broke into the easy, regular rhythm of someone who had practiced saying something a hundred times. “Manufactured reality is literally adjusting the reality you, personally, are experiencing. You can see, hear, even taste and feel an entirely new world we create for your entertainment. And you can do so entirely by yourself, or with a group of family, friends, co co-workers.”

Maise nodded, as much to show Winton she wanted to interject something as to indicate she understood. “Okay, but how do you do that? How is it possible for someone to experience a different reality other than broadcasting electrical impulses into their brain, the way modern VR parlors do?”

Winton’s smile grew in a way Maise thought looked a bit predatory. “VR is just as you say, an illusion of senses sent to your brain. But you only experience what the VR system is programmed for you to experience. It’s no more than a game, or a movie.

“Manufactured reality actually creates a new set of physical laws, which act and react to whatever you do within that reality. We set up those rules, but don’t control the outcome of how you interact with them.”

Maise switched her smile from “friendly” to “slightly bemused,” one of her trademarked moves. “How does that work? At a layman’s level, I mean?”

Winton spoke energetically, his hands moving to punctuate specific words. “We’ve known that perception influences reality since the old double-slit experiments of the early 2000s. It took time for that to eb well-excepted, but the sciences of quantum attunement and quantum frequency grew out of that. In short, at it’s most basic level, reality is just a state of energy, and conscious minds can impact the form that energy takes. Because we are all at the same quantum frequency, we all experience the same reality, on a macro-scale.

But it is possible to adjust that quantum frequency, temporarily, attuning a person and their perception to a new energy state. With the right equipment, such as our extreme comfortable q-couches, your entire body can be placed slightly out of attunement with the reality we all perceive around us, and attuned with a manufactured reality, created by a q-bit cogitator that can emulate a new set of physical laws. That create the framework of a new energy state that an individual can perceive as real.

“Once the framework of a manufactured reality is set up, a visitor’s quantum frequency is attuned, through entanglement, to a master oscillation which serves as a common reference point. Everyone attuned to the same oscillation experiences one, shared, manufactured reality we design and oversee, but do not control. When something happens in VR, it’s part of a script. When it happens in our manufactured reality, it’s because of cause-and-effect beyond anyone’s control or ability to predict.”

Maise jumped on that. “So, it’s real, not artificial experiences? Then why are people’s bodies still here, sitting in high-tech sofas? If you manufacture a new reality, why are they still present in our reality?”

Winton looked unsurprised. “We keep the quantum amplitude low enough to only impact each individual’s experience of the manufactured reality. It isn’t some naturally occurring alternate universe, though we now know those exist. It is a framework of reality, built to be real enough to enjoy and have largely-consistent rules, but not real enough to impact our perception of guest’s bodies. So as soon as their quantum attunement stops being maintained, they snap back to our perception of them, no worse for wear.”

“But to the guests, their experiences are entirely real-feeling?”

Winton allowed his smile to fade to a friendly grin. The kind of grin your grandfather had just before telling you a bad joke. “Only within the rules of the manufactured realities they visit. We keep some sensations, such as taste, touch, and smell, at full strength. But we have adjusted each manufactured reality to have different expressions of pain, for example. So while being stabbed in the manufactured HeroLand reality hurts, it hurts like a bruise or cramp. Typical sport-activity level pain. Nothing traumatic, for obvious reasons. And we ensure that the bandwidth of the quantum amplitude is taken up with enough other feedback that even the most horrific experiences in our manufactured realities are perceived more like watching them in a movie, rather than experiencing them. We make worlds better than real – nothing too bad is capable of happening within them.

Maise knew there was no chance of catching Winton off-guard, but there were certain questions her fanbase expected her to ask. “And no one can get stuck in a manufactured reality? I understand there were some incidents during early human trials.”

Winton choose to look more somber. “When the technology was young and the applications being explored were all military, yes there were cases where it was not possible to detune a subject from their manufactured reality without bringing back the physical effects of their experiences. And some people were allowed to experience manufactured realities for much longer than current best practices dictate. But our systems literally can’t do either of those things.” The big smile returned.  “Our quantum cores can’t generate manufactured worlds with the amplitude needed to overwrite physical reality, and our transmitters overheat after 40 continuous hours, well short of the 150-hour duration that has been shown to potentially cause physiological distress. We built systems that break before they can put anyone in actual danger.”

Maise had one shot at getting a good sound bite, and she took it. “But the system could, theoretically, be repurposed to create more dangerous manufactured realities?”

Winton laughed. “In the same way you could strap a jet engine to a ferris wheel to make it less safe, yes. But no one in their right mind would do such a thing, and it would take hundreds of millions to create such a thing in any case. Guests to any of our Manufactured Marvels sites have nothing to worry about.”

Maise was prepared to push the point—less because she thought Winton actually ran secret off-the-books manufactured deathsport reality, but more because such conspiracy theories were good for clicks and views—but the magnate lifted a finger to forestall her as she took in a breath.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Dolores.” There was no humor in Winton’s expression now, and Maise could just barely see a tiny flashing red light in the corner of his right pupil. “I’m afraid one of those ‘unexpected emergencies’ my staff must have warned you might crop up has, in fact, raised it’s ugly head. Could we have my staff arrange for a virtual interview to answer any more questions? We have, in fact, had an in-person interview now, so your claim of an exclusive remains legally valid.”

Maise smiled and stood, putting out a hand as she did so. “Of course, Mr. Classen. I appreciate you making any time at all for me.”

Winton stood and clasped her hand firmly. A tiny series of hums Maise felt in the bone of her skull, inaudible to anyone else even if they were adjacent to her, confirmed what she suspected. Winton was receiving a stream of wireless data. Her bootjack system probably couldn’t record it, and even if it managed to she’d likely never break the encryption. But even just knowing how much data he was getting could help her figure out what part of his vast empire was under threat serious enough for hum to cut HER short, in person.

His voice remained eminently calm was he walked her to the door of his office. “Perhaps we can make it up to you/ Allow you to run a stream from one of our Manufactured Marvel facilities?”

Now Maise was surprised. “I… was under the impression that was never allowed?”

“Not while guests are present—privacy concerns and such, of course. But we often have previews for VIPs before we open a facility to the public, I would imagine we could let you stream from one of those before anyone else was allowed to use it.”

“That would be lovely.” Maise let real excitement leak into her voice. “I can guarantee that would get fifty million live views.”

Winton’s very-practiced smile returned. “With you as the streamer, I’m sure it will. My staff will contact you to set something up.”

And then Maise was in the waiting room again, and Winton has smoothly closed the door, blocking her access to whatever emergency had his attention.

Winton Classen tensed his jaw in exactly the way needed to bring up his personal HUD, and a list of options popped into his view, though the ‘URGENT’ light flashing in his peripheral vision remained bright and obvious. He focused his vision on “Lockdown,” and as that option was picked heard the hum of antispying devices turning his office into the next-best thing to espionage-proof.

Not that he believed someone couldn’t break those protections, if they really wanted to. Winton just wanted to make sure such an effort would be so expensive no one would ever bother.

Winton moved past the cozy sitting area he and Ms. Dolores had been at, where he interviewed people he wanted to put at ease, to sit in the massive leather chair behind his immense oak desk. Where he interviewed people he wanted to frighten. With a wave of his hand he brought a section of the wall to light and the image of Cory Mai, his chief of operations, took form on it.

“Who is it, and how badly did they screw up?” Winton’s voice was terse, but not angry. If Cory thought he needed to be interrupted, he assumed she was right. He trusted her judgment.

Her face was calm, but the slightest crinkle by her left eye worried him more than most people would have if they’d been spitting in rage.

“It’s the Morgan brothers. Both of them, at once, I’ll note. And they screwed it about as badly as possible.”

Winton signed, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Can we get them out alive?”

Cory shook her head. “I’m not sure we can get them out at all. They’re Gamma-6.”

“What?!” Winton rarely lost his reserve, and was immediately annoyed. If anyone but Cory was claiming that. “Okay, Cory. Explain to me why that’s not impossible. My last briefing said Gamma-4 is still as deep as even DARPA has gotten. And we only recently proved Gamma-5 as even theoretically possible. How the hell did a couple of rich idiots get themselves attuned more deeply than any other manufactured reality system in the world.”

Cory visibly shrugged. “We don’t know. David Morgan is a hell of a quantum engineer, even if he’s refused to ever do much with his talent. We’ve just gotten on-site, and it’s obvious he’s made extensive modifications to his oscillator. And as far as we can tell, he hasn’t documented any of it. We’re analyzing it now, but we have to do that while it’s running, which complicates things. We can’t shut it down without losing both Morgans, given the state of their quantum signatures, and David may be the only person who has never managed a G-6 attunement.”

Winton released the bridge of his nose, and let his mind float for a minute. Cory knew he was thinking, but also knew she wouldn’t interrupt him just by giving him more facts.

“Their overwatch team got worried 12 hours ago, when the Morgan’s bodies began to show sign of severe trauma. They don’t let their overwatch monitor of record their manufactured experiences, but there is a tandem rig for each of them. Two security experts settled in and got attuned, with a 5-minute timer. Both came back into native attunement with enough trauma on their bodies to die within seconds. The Morgan’s chief of staff freaked out, ignored house policy, and called me directly. It took time to get here with a team…”

“You’re there, yourself, in person?” Winton interrupted.

“I am,” Cory confirmed. “The Morgans are huge donors and investors in many of our concerns, and we supplied them with the original private oscillator they’ve since modified. Given their influence, and that we already had two dead, I wanted to assess the situation directly.”

Winton waved a hand to indicate he understood. It was an unusual step, but Cory had always proven to have good reason to take unusual steps.

“The Morgan’s oscillation system shows them at Gamma-4, but I wanted to confirm that, so I had our people do an independent sampling. When that came in at G-7, I had them run it again. And again. But it turns out the Morgan’s system simply isn’t set up to show any attunement deeper than Gamma-4, and our results are consistent. I can’t tell you how they managed it, but I can tell you what David Morgan thought he’d done.”

Winton raised an eyebrow, an affectation he’d developed as a child but also an effective way to let people know they had his attention.

“His diary entries are clear.” Cory’s voice was carefully neutral. Unjudgmental. “He thought he’d found an actual alternate reality, which just happened to have magic and dragons and evil tyrants.”

Winton’s eyebrow stayed elevated. “Do you believe that?”

“I…” Cory rarely paused. She was silent for a full two seconds. Then:

“I don’t believe it. But I can’t disprove it either. And whatever they’ve done, it’s going to radically change some dearly held belief of our experts. So as ridiculous as that sounds, I’m not ruling it out of the list of possibilities, though I’m not basing decisions on it, either.”

Winton nodded to himself. That kind of risk-management, and willingness to accept facts over her own view of what ought to be true, was a big part of why he trusted her judgement. “So…,” he let the word linger for a moment. “”What do you recommend?”

“Now Cory didn’t hesitate.” “We need to send a team in after them. If nothing else, we need to talk to David Morgan, even if we can’t extract him alive. I already have new attunement couches being set up. The Morgans only designed their system for the two of them and the two emergency tandem rigs, but the quantum oscillator has the same standard 32-output connections as our standard models. Even so, I don’t think we can afford to send more than 12 people – there’s a limited about of power available, and while the Morgans’ couches are normal, I don’t know what might happen if we overload their oscillator’s output. It looks like the system can handle 12 more without any issue, but after that it might start throttling back the among of energy used for each couch, and since I don’t know how they got to Gamma-7, I don’t know if reducing total power available might impact it.

“As for who to send, obviously we have a number of qualified teams for most of this. But the manufactured reality the Morgans are in was… custom. It’s not based on any of our Manufactured Marvel settings, or any of the common tropes we have explored and trained in for possible setting expansion later. That means we don’t have any internal setting experts. I recommend we hire some from… unorthodox… sources.”

Winton nodded. “Approved. What is the setting based on, and where are you going to get experts?”

Cory sighed. “It’s something called the Grimdarque Roleplaying Game. It’s a paper=and-pencil tabletop game, not computer or VR, with origins in the 1980s. And… there’s a fan convention… “

“Game Masters” is an experiment in serialized fiction. It is supported only by contributions to my Patreon. if you want to read more of the story, go support my Patreon and let me know!

Writing Basic: DO NOT USE TABLE FORMATTING

This is SUPER basic, and SUPER ignored, but I promise you, it’s true. (And as with most of my writing basics, here I am talking about tabletop game writing for someone else to publish.)

Unless your editor/producer/publisher specifically tells you to?

DO NOT USE TABLE FORMATTING IN YOUR FINAL DRAFT.

It is of NO use to the developer, editor, or layout artist. It is, in fact, a huge pain in the butt.

Yes, MAYBE you need to get things in neat columns to make sure your table says what you want where you want it.

But when you turn it over?

Note what is a table title, what is a column head, and what is table text, and then put ONE TAB between EACH COLUMN ENTRY. (As always, check to see if your publisher has specific or different requirements.) Do NOT use your word processing programs table function.

Like this, but with [tab] replaced by an actual tab.

[Table Title]An Example Table

[Table Column Heads]Writing Level[tab]No. Of Wrong Tables[tab]Editor Cursewords

101[tab]14[tab]14

102[tab]6[tab]12*

201[tab]0[tab]0

*Because a 102 level writer should know better.

Yes, it’s a minor thing.

But getting minor things wrong makes you take more time and more effort, and thus more money and frustration, for publishers to want to hire you.

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Life in Evansville… So Far, So Good

I have heard recently from three different friends who all said three different other friends are “sure” I hate it in Indiana, here in the Land of the Brain Eaters.

I don’t.

I’m actually settling in really well. Yes, I am sometimes lost, depressed, disconnected, moody, or in a black doldrum so dense nothing, not even cheer, can escape.

But… that’s just me, folks. I have civilian PTSD. I suffer clinical depression. I am a socially awkward introvert. None of that was going to stop because I moved to the last place in the US where you can buy a fried brain sandwich any day of the week.

I mean… maybe once I eat my first brain. I’m saving that for a special occasion.

But honestly, I am doing better than I expected, by a long shot. I have only ever lived in central Oklahoma and the Seattle region (well, and one semester in California when I was in kindergarten). Ever time I have moved, even just to a new neighborhood in the same town, it has taken me months to get comfortable. Sometimes years.

Here? I’m already pretty comfortable.

Some of that may be how I moved–for me the most grueling part was packing things up during the 5 weeks I was still in Redmond after Lj had flown out to Evansville. But that meant our possessions, including my bed, were already in place when i arrived. There was a space for me before I got here. Yes, about half of what I own is still in boxes, and we’re still figuring out which kitchen drawer has the spatulas, and the movers lost some of our furniture and ruined more–but none of that is part of Evansville. It sucks, but it’s just life.

Gen Con was shortly after my arrival, and while driving to and from the Con in a few hours was a new experience, the Con itself is familiar. The Con Crud I got was new — just a little sore throat and a tad too much mucus, combined with a fatigue that kicked my ass for three weeks. So some of the vibes people seem to have picked up may have been annoyance with how little energy I had.

The culture here is one I understand. It’s not the same as OK or WA, but it’s similar to both of them in a way. No one looks at me funny when i say ‘yes, sir” or “thank you, ma’am,” most food is fried *or* bar-b-que *or* Asian fusion, there are multiple multiplexes, lots of delivery services, and a dizzying array of test kitchen restaurants.

Roads are largely laid out on a grid with 90-degree turns and packing lots shared between businesses. Things are flat, though not Oklahoma flat. There’s real thunder, so far on a nearly-weekly basis. The sun comes up and goes down at reasonable times.

I miss my Seattle friends… but I still chat with them online. I miss my OK friends… but I just saw them last month. I enjoy being closer to friends who live in IN and adjoining states, and I expect I’ll make new friends. And if I don’t, that’s okay too.

And WOW are things cheaper than Seattle. Like, stunningly cheaper. That takes a LOT of stress off.

My wife Lj and I have begun figuring out what life here is going to be like. We took our first ever yoga class–a chair-based one, for beginners–and I think that’s going to be a huge part of the future. It’s less than 15 minutes from our apartment, we clicked with the class and instructor immediately, and it had an immediate positive effect on us. I have come to think of it as physical therapy for being human. As I claim back strength and flexibility lost to years of stress and sitting, I’ll be looking at next steps, but this first step feels very *right*, and useful, and sustainable.

I’m already in a Pathfinder game, so that’s good. 🙂 I have also already begun to carve out the new shape of my career. I’m the Game Design Expert at Lone Wolf Development, I have a real plan to produce some fiction in a way I never have before, and I have more things as settled deals which just aren’t ready for announcement yet.

There will be dark times ahead, of course. That’s a fact of my life — I am at war with my own brain, and I take that war with me anywhere I go. But I don’t think those battles will be harder here than they were elsewhere. Yes, my support network is more virtual and less direct now, but then my sources of stress are also reduced. Yes, there are some big financial challenges we put off until after the move, but we are in a good place to tackle those. A lot of the things I thought would happen now look like they aren’t going to, but I knew not all of them would–just not WHICH ones wouldn’t. And, at least at the moment, I am sanguine with my prospects.

And for a while at least, there’s a whole city to explore. Will we go to the giant bridge club building? Visit one (or more) of the many minigolf courses? Pick a “favorite” restaurant, or game store? Go back to taking the occasional evening drive in air that cool but not cold?

Find the elusive Red Cathedral? Or Storm Arsenal? Fight the Brain eaters… or join them?

I don’t know.

But I look forward to finding out.

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Supers Ideas: More Knight Shift

Yet more members of the not-front-page, unusually-themed second-string heroes of Cathedral City, the Knight Shift.

Crimson Kpinga: John “Jake” Jefferson James tried to do everything right, despite growing up in a broken home in Devil’s Avenue, one of the worst slums in Cathedral City. He worked part time to help his mother with the bills, avoid criminal crowds, studied hard, and looked after his younger siblings. But none of that mattered when someone matching his description (“young African American male in a t-shirt and jeans”) hijacked a car four blocks away. Jake was grabbed and beaten by police, including the notorious Sgt. Stoneman, who consistently called Jake a “goddam cannibal, like the rest of you Ni-niams.”

CCTV footage proved Jake was innocent, but not before he spent 48 hours in lockup. Kake tried to bring complaints against the specific officers who mistreated him, only to find the system was designed to favor their word over his. He was told repeated by the people in his community that police did not treat them equally, and that while there were good cops and bad cops, they didn’t look different until one hit you. Or shot you. His community did not trust, or call on cops.

Jake was done trying to do things the way the system demanded. He decided to fill in the role of peacekeeper and justice dealer in Devil’s Avenue. And, guided by the “Ni-Niam” slur, he researched an African people and their weapons to be his inspiration. He researched the Zande and their traditional weapons, the  Kpinga throwing knife. he got a job at an upscale axe-throwing bar that had moved into a bankrupt barbaer shop on the edge of his neighborhood, and at night practiced throwing the weapon again and again. The Crimson Kpinga was born.

He had a few successes, but his career would have run short early except for one fateful decision. While leading a group of drug-dealing thugs away from a residential area, Jake happened to run through the stairs to the door of the 13th floor of an abandoned building. And, it turned out, Tacoma was watching.

Since joining forces with Tacoma, Crimson Kpinga has received a great deal more training, and significant equipment upgrades, giving him armored costumes and high-tech kpingas, allowing him to operate on a whole different level, though his first priority remains the people of Devil’s Avenue.

Tacoma: Tacoma is a ghost building. It’s elevator can access the 13th floor of any building in the world that is 13 stories or higher, and that has a working elevator. Tacoma itself can only be accessed from an elevator with a 14th floor button, and only if Tacoma feels like allowing it (and is paying attention).

The Tacoma Building, and early skyscraper in Chicago built in 1889, was the first riveted-iron-frame building in the world and the first 13-story building in the world. It was home to numerous offices and businesses. One of these was the Beneficient Order of Hieremias, a charity that existed as a cover for the evil-hunting Gileadian champions of peace and life. When the building was destroyed in 1929 by Sfinții Dracului, the public was told it was to make way for a new building.

But the building known as Grandfather Skyscraper had been murdered by magic, and it’s spirit was restless. It existed as a ghost, seen only from the corner of the eye or as a glitch on maps of various big cities. When Sister Celestial staggered out of a 14th floor elevator in 1934 on death’s door after a bloody gun battle with the King of Hell’s Kitchen, she accidentally access Tacoma instead of the afterlife. Tacoma managed to bring a doctor to her (who, despite great confusion, saved the Sister’s life), and then became Sister Celestial’s best friend and ally for the next 20 years of her crusade. After her death in the mid 1950s, Tacoma sat empty and unaccessed until Crimson Kpinga, wounded and leading dangerous men away from innocents, ran through a 13th floor door, and Tacoma noticed. And brought “CK” safely into his own space.

It took time for CK to realize Tacoma was alive, or at least aware, but with Tacoma showing him special 13th floor rooms all over the world — places where supervillains set up special labs that remained secret after they were killed, or that heroes a generation or two ago had used as their bases of operation, CK and Tacoma became a powerful team. When Firecracker invited Crimson Kpinga to join the Knight Shift, he accepted, and brought the considerable resource of Tacoma with him.

Longlegs: Longlegs is Jennifer “JennJenn” Janice James, the younger sister of Jake james, better known as the Crimson Kpinga. When CK was captured by the Kill Klan, Tacoma reached out to JennJenn as she happened to be on the 13th floor of an office building as part of her food delivery job. Tacoma managed to communicate with JennJenn, and urge her to call the Knight Shift for help. She did, but she also insisted on going to help herself. Wishing to keep her from harm, Tacoma took her to an abandoned safe house where the Parole Patrol criminal gang had been planning a heist during a 4th of July parade, but had been captured before they could attempt it. Among the unused gear was a single-purpose tight-fitting exoskeleton with powerful hydraulic stilts, designed to be disguised as an Uncle Sam Tall Man. during the parade. JennJenn too the suit for its armor value, but discovered she had a knack for using it’s telescoping legs for movement, escape, and powerful kicks.

After CK was rescued, he tried to forbid JennJenn from becoming a costumed hero, claiming she was “too young.” Tacoma disagreed, and CK discovered he could help JennJenn become Longlegs, or he could let her do it on her own. She has since become a valued member of the Knight Shift.

Mirror Mirror: When the Villains Alliance attempt to use the Multivexer to slice off alternate realities from the blended alterverse, allowing them to be isolated and eventually drained of all energy, somehow Adam Mason was caught at the edge of the field, and briefly linked to ever version of himself in ever reality. The result of this is twofold. First, Adama has access to every skill any version of him gained in any reality, which mostly runs to a long list of service jobs and hobby-level sports and games, but occasionally includes a real outlier of high degree skill or learning (such as preparing blowfish safely, and speaking fluent Cantonese).

Secondly, Adam can assume the form of an alternate reality version of anyone he touches. Normally this is a very close duplicate, though sometimes there are surprising differences (the alternate reality version of Dexter he once assumed was, inexplicable, a chainmail-wearing swordwoman with a raygun). However, he can maintain this form only until he encounters a high-energy state change, which includes anything as powerful as a good punch. Once he is “knocked back to reality,” he can’t assume an alternate version of that person again until his quantum state bleeds off all related residual vibrations… a process that takes just over seven years.

He has also discovered that some entities, such as the Incorruptibles and the Elders from Before, do not HAVE alternate-reality versions of themselves.

As a result As Mirror Mirror (Em-Em, in the field), Adam tried not to duplicate anyone, especially a teammate, unless he absolutely has to, since doing so removes that option for seven years of future encounters and sometimes it’s no help at all. That said, when the Terminax was prepared to destroy all life in the solar system, Em-Em was able to beocme an alternate version of itself and countermand its every order to the Terminaughts, and then send a shutdown code to defeat the Terminax itself.

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When You Run The Company, Nothing Takes “Just 10 Minutes”

Just coming off Gen Con, which gave me an opportunity to talk shop and history with many of the titans of tabletop, I want to offer some insight on what it’s like to be a manager, owner, or major executive employee at a tabletop game company.

I’ve worked on staff at Wizards of the Coast, Green Ronin, and Paizo. I’ve freelanced for a dozen other companies, and know many of their owners and executives very well. I’ve helped start, run, and shut down game companies. I’ve been doing this in different roles for more than 20 years.

This insight isn’t about one company. Nor is it about my own time constraints (in general my role is game creation and NOT these kinds of tasks)

This is about the tabletop RPG industry as a whole, as it has been for decades, in many different capacities, for many different companies.

First–you never have free time, or enough time. There is always an event coming up. Sometimes people have to walk away from one almost-week-long event that took 2 months to plan for to get on a plane to fly overseas for another such even. Sometimes people work 5-6 weekends in a row at events, conventions, sales meetings, open houses, and so on. Sometimes you have to work 30 8-10 hour days in a row.

And the people who do that work also have things that have to be done every weekday, every week, every month. It’s 40 hours of work if you are lucky, AND weekends of work (especially during March-August, the half the year we refer to as con “Season”), AND THEN emergencies that are time-sensitive and cannot wait.

And it’s a rough industry. Most of the game companies I bought things from 20 years ago don’t exist anymore. A lot of the ones I bought from 10 years ago don’t exist anymore. Even those that are still around sometimes suffer layoffs, or long periods where things are so risky that a single bad decision about which license to sign, which partner to anger, which friend-of-a-friend you annoy, which print run to cut back, which book to publish, can sink a company.

It’s high-stakes, high-stress, high-time-consumption, all the time.

I absolutely am not telling anyone they are not allowed to ever feel like a company isn’t giving them enough attention. But when there are serious problems, it’s wrong to think the company owners or senior staff are showing disrespect or proving they “don’t care about customers” because they “won’t just take 10 minutes and discuss some information.”

The people who make the decisions who keep the doors open at a tabletop game company can’t do anything regarding major problems off-the-cuff.

It’s never “just 10 minutes.”

And, again, I’m not currently dealing with any of these huge issues in my role at any company right now.

But I have in the past.

I know when I have had issues with licenses with other companies, when I was in other positions, I have had to not just decide “What do I want to say,” but:

“Do I need to warn my partners, who are also partners of a company i am having issues with, before I make a statement about that company’s issues??”

“Do I need to run this by my company’s owner?”

“Do I need to run it through our legal council?”

“Do we need to have a meeting to make sure everyone is on the same page about what has happened, and what our plans are?”

“Do I need to have editors go over my statement so it is clear and concise?”

“Would I rather take the 2-3 hours of collective time it is going to take to do this, or to sleep at least 6 hours tonight?”

And when the people who run these companies are too harried to make the right business decisions? People lose their jobs.

It’s not just a game, or a badly produced entertainment product for the people who depend on these jobs for health insurance, retirement income, and rent.

The thing you claim will be easy to give you?

Done right, it’s never just 10 minutes.

Done wrong, it can tank someone’s job.

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