Class Notes: Archaeology of Words

-January 16th, 2013

Having recently celebrated my birthday, I’ve had cause to muse over the peculiar benefits of growing older. I was reminded of one such benefit a couple days ago while flipping through some game books that I’d nearly forgotten buying. Tucked within the pages were some some post-its with hand-written notes for Degrees of Horror.

Like the thrill of finding money in the pocket of a jacket you hadn’t worn since last year, writers get to enjoy the “found money” of old stories and notes from years gone by. Sometimes we say “I wrote that?!” and other times “I wrote THAT?” Either way, it’s usually entertaining. The notes I found this week were a mixture of plot point notes and ideas for Savage Tales. I wrote a LOT of notes about the plot points, mainly because that’s what demanded 80% of my creative energy. Those notes ended up on all sorts of paper scraps over the years. One day it might be fun to scan them in for “director’s commentary” but in the meantime those notes are seeeeeekrit.

I can, however, share the Savage Tale ideas I’d jotted down then lost between the pages of that book. I suspect these particular ideas were ones that Ed and I came up with together because some of the elements seem like the kind of twists he would introduce.

Cram: A student is selling a drug he claims help memory retention. Unfortunately, it makes people either violent, psychic, or dead. It also works.

Cry Baby: During a party on the Red Bridge, an NPC is found floating in the river. Clutched in her hand is a child’s toy.

“Have you seen my mommy?”

Twins – good/bad

Mother’s ashes?

– Break into time capsule

Practical Joke: Time capsule being opened tomorrow and a new time capsule buried. A group of frat guys/dorm guys decide to see what’s there first. It’s a chain letter. They find someone else on site trying to get there first– the son of someone who hid evidence to a murder in the original capsule.

I like these ideas, but obviously the notes just caught the essence of the idea so that I could go back later and flesh them out. Here’s how I’d treat them today:

Cram: The gang is pulled into a mystery when a dorm-mate goes on a violent, destructive spree through the dorm– ending at the heroes. Once subdued, the character begins reciting his physics textbook in an uncontrollable flood of words. If the gang asks around, the NPC’s friends note an abrupt academic improvement, bouncing from being on academic probation to breezing through his classes. Near the time of the change he also took a job and perpetually claimed to be broke. A search of his dorm room turns up a handful of pills on the floor, apparently spilled from their hiding place in a candy wrapper. As the heroes search the room, the NPC’s dealer arrives to clean up any evidence, leading to a confrontation. Will they take his offer to buy “Cram” themselves, or turn him in?

 Cry Baby: During a rave on a remote, dilapidated bridge in the Big Thicket, the heroes discover an unconscious NPC floating in the stream below. She clutches a child’s toy in her hand, and upon being awakened asks “Where is my mommy?.” The NPC has been possessed by the ghost a child who was murdered 17 years ago. She and her mother were killed by her stepfather and their bodies dumped in the stream. They came to rest against the bridge’s pilings and their bones are scattered beneath the silt. The spirits are restless and took the opportunity to briefly possess a passed out party-goer to spread clues about their murder.

Practical Joke: The demolition of an old building on campus revealed a hidden time capsule, leaving many on campus excited to learn its contents. From the photo in the campus newspaper, the gang recognize a symbol etched into the lock-box as a occult rune of demon-binding. With the box’s public grand opening scheduled for the next day, the gang’s only shot at stopping a disaster is to get their hands on it tonight. Unfortunately, a group of practical jokers have the same idea, only they plan on replacing the box’s contents with a live frog. It’s a race to a potentially deadly prize!

From these brief ideas you can see that Degrees of Horror offers plenty of opportunity for adventure outside the classroom and even off campus. It also offers adventures involving the occult, demonic foes, and restless spirits, and even intoxicated practical jokers. What more could you want in a game?

Writing: Meet Johnny Doe

-December 12th, 2012

As I mentioned a week or two ago, Ed and I have been batting around the idea of writing new Pinebox short stories to be collected into a shared world anthology.  The general idea is to create a “Scooby gang” of characters who would appear in a variety of adventures set on and around the ETU campus.

Since I don’t have anything new to report with regard to Degrees of Horror, I thought it might be fun to do a little character creation exercise.  Maybe the character will get used in the anthology (IF said book ever gets off the ground) or maybe not, but either way I hope it’ll be a fun experiment.

For this character I’m using my new, favorite idea generator called Story Forge. It’s a tarot-style card deck marked with broad story-telling themes. I absolutely love it. I won’t go into great detail about how it works– just follow the link and watch a couple of the demonstration videos.

To get things started, let’s say our incoming ETU Freshman’s name is Johnny Doe. I have a vague idea for a character who epitomizes “nice guys finish last”, but we’ll see what kind of writing prompts the cards give us.

This is what I drew for Johnny's backstory card spread. Also, my bedspread.

This is what I drew for Johnny’s backstory card spread. Also, my bedspread.

Card 1: Character’s mother- Imbalance
This could be interpreted many different ways, but I’m going to go with a mental disorder such as manic-depressive.

Card 2: Character’s Father- The Doctor
I wavered between small town MD or dentist, but let’s go with MD.

Card 3: The strength of their relationshipWeakness
Wow! That’s an interesting dynamic. Story Forge advises to re-draw any cards that don’t make sense, but I like making difficult connections. I’d say the strength of their relationship is their co-dependence. Mom needs the doctor to help her manage her condition and he needs to feel needed.

Card 4: The problems between themIndustry
The doctor’s responsibilities keep him busy, leaving him less time for his wife’s needs. This resulted in lots of conflict at home, maybe driving his mom to “self medicate” through alcohol.

Card 5: Circumstances of the character’s birthDesire
It’s nice to know that the flame still burns, huh?

Card 6: Complications, if anyEpiphany
The card’s description says “In an overwhelming instant, the true nature of the universe and one’s place in it are revealed”. Probably not terribly relevant, but if we want to weave it back into the narrative we could say that dad was forced to choose between being present at his son’s birth or saving the life of a patient elsewhere in the hospital. His acceptance of his responsibility as a healer that night led him to become a workaholic (Industry in card 4), at the expense of his family life.

Card 7: The universe’s influence on the character’s natureThe Relative
Now we get an interesting twist. Mom was sometimes difficult to be around and dad was always gone, so Grandpa became a major influence in Johnny’s life growing up.

Card 8: Early StrengthsThe Criminal
Um… did I say I liked making difficult connections? This is hard to weave into the narrative we’ve started building, but let’s give it a shot. My guess is that he went through a shoplifting phase as a young teen–maybe even inspired by Grandpa’s stories of his wild youth. In this case it’s a strength because a) it became a coping mechanism for his strained home life, and b) ironically, his dreams of becoming a master criminal taught him self-discipline, obsessive planning, and careful observation.

Card 9: Early weaknessThe jilted
Whereas card 8 was a total departure from how I imagined this character, card 9 is exactly what I’d envisioned. Many of us have experienced love gone awry as a teenager, but for him it became a repeating theme.

Card 10: EducationPoverty
This card doesn’t make a lot of sense at first, but if you consider that he grew up in a small, rural town with a poor public school then his formal education opportunities were probably limited.

Card 11: Belief foundationWrath
I’d say Johnny hasn’t benefited from a structured home environment and his experiences with teenage love have left him heartbroken and bitter. He carries anger inside and believes “an eye for an eye” is the best policy.

Card 12: Life experienceInfidelity
Ouch. Bending this back around to “the jilted” makes perfect sense. As a teen in high school, both girls he dated ended up seeing other guys behind his back until the gossip caught up. These experiences are shaping him into a distrustful “lone wolf”.

Card 13: A shaping experience in recent timesThe monster
I’m sure a lot of times this card is interpreted figuratively, but in our case we’re going literal. Let’s bring this back around to Wrath. During his senior year, Johnny found out that his girlfriend was cheating on him. He wanted revenge but his personal motto –Never get caught– gave him pause. While trying to use a “curse” he found on the internet, he instead accidentally summoned a wraith. Through sheer luck, he disrupted the summoning before it could kill him.

Card 14: An experience that left scarsChastity
Let’s just weave this in with Jilted and Infidelity. His relationship with his teen love was chaste, whereas her infidelity wasn’t.

Card 15: The state of the character at the beginning of the story- Gnosis
Described as “A firm understanding of the difference between good and evil allows one to choose with certainty, but one must still make that choice.” I’m going to tie this in to his encounter with the monster. He realizes now that true evil exists, which makes the heartache of his love life a minor quibble by comparison. Johnny can continue a path of hard-hearted Wrath, or he can try to find a new way.

I’d say we have a pretty good handle on this character, wouldn’t you? It would certainly be enough to start role-playing, even if some of the backstory about his parents never comes to light. We could probably summarize Johnny like so:

Johnny Doe grew up as a troubled teen in an upper-middle class home with self-absorbed parents. For a time, he applied himself to theft the way other boys studied rocketry or video games, but a couple of close brushes with the law convinced him to “retire” and find other pursuits. Although not friendless, a chain of teenage heartbreaks turned him bitter and angry toward romance. However, a life-changing encounter with the supernatural caused him to re-evaluate the course of his life and he is looking for a new beginning at ETU.

If I were statting out Johnny for Degrees of Horror, I’d give him Lockpicking, Fighting, Guts, Healing, Investigation, Notice, and Stealth. I’m adding Fighting although his history doesn’t directly call it out because Wild Cards in a Horror setting need it, if only for the Parry. If I had to justify it in his back story, I’d say that after giving up theft he turned to martial arts for excitement. For hindrances, I’d give him Loyal (Minor) and Vengeful (Minor) but there’s a lot of wiggle room in there, as is the case with Edges.

To be honest, Johnny didn’t exactly turn out to be the “nice guys finish last” character I’d been considering. However, he’s certainly interesting! His breaking and entering skills might just come in handy and his bad luck with love would be fertile ground for great secondary plots. What do you think?

Class Notes: Trivia Edition!

-December 5th, 2012

  • The oldest Degrees of Horror-related file on my computer is called Majors2, and it was last modified on 12/16/2005. That’s seven years ago, for those of you playing at home.
  • 12 to Midnight attended Origins in 2007 and playtested the first plot point — Sweat Lodge. At that point we’d written a good chunk of the player’s section.
  • We released Buried Tales of Pinebox, Texas (our most recent product) in 2009. It was an Ennie nominee the following year.
  • We submitted ETU_final.doc (hah!) to Pinnacle in April 2010. It was 283 pages, 129,251 words. That’s novel length. In the Fall we were given the editor’s notes.

Then we started in on revisions…

  • Last week I turned in ETU_all_chapters_20121127.docx. It was 221 pages and 94,930 words, some of which are notes to the editor.

I’ve written about the revisions in the weekly Class Notes for nearly a year now, so I won’t belabor that. I’ll just say that this is a much tighter, more focused, better book.

Class Notes: All Hallows Eve

-October 31st, 2012

Howdy and welcome to another edition of Class Notes. Also, HAPPY HALLOWEEN! Ed and I talked about whipping up a Halloween-themed one-sheet for Pinebox, which would have been fun. At this point though, I am 100% committed to finishing Degrees of Horror and didn’t want to divert my attention even to another relatively short Pinebox-related project.

Also, before I forget, THANK YOU you to everyone who came out and chatted with Ed and I last week on the Beautiful Brains Back Room Chat. If you missed it you can follow the link to read the transcripts. We had a lot of fun, and talking about horror never gets old.

Now on to this week’s report. Last week I said that I wasn’t quite done with NPCs. I’m pleased to report that I finished the remaining NPCs, all the Extras, and started in on the Beastiary. So far the creatures have been slow going because I’m trying to get my arms around several different creatures that actually all fall in the same category. For instance, we had three different demons, all of which had been written before the Horror Companion. So step one was to take advantage of the trail blazed by the Demon “monstrous ability” from that book and create a new base level from which to build. Sounds easy, but getting to that point took longer than you’d think.

After finishing off the demons, I took same approach with another creature. Actually, this one makes me a little sad because it brings into focus some fun stuff I’m leaving on the cutting room floor. In the original version of the plot points, I introduced a creature called the Needler. Very recently I realized that I can accomplish everything I need to story-wise using another existing creature– the Chupacabra. So now in the beastiary I’ve created a “chupacabra” monstrous ability which I just finished applying to a handful of variants of the same basic creature. All of that takes time, as I have to figure out what gets cut and what’s genuinely necessary. But hey, you get chupacabras!

Anyhow, as I was flipping through the pages just now to get a sense of how much I’d accomplished and how much I had left to go, guess what I found? Two MORE demons. So I guess I’m not done with those guys after all. Oh, did I mention Ed wrote a really cool “demon generator”? Draw a handful of cards and in only a minute you’ve statted out a unique creature that you can throw against your heroes. The downside is that it’s 645 words long and a creature generator probably better belongs in a toolkit or companion than in a setting book. I’m leaving it in because why not, but if the editors cut it for space then we’ll have to make sure it appears in a supplement or online.

So here were are. October 31. I’d really, really hoped I’d be at the end of the book by now. The good news is that once I get done with these “classes” of creatures, the one-offs ought to go way faster. I feel like the contractor from the movie The Money Pit, but I’m going to say it all the same: Two weeks!

Class Notes: Charging Ahead

-October 3rd, 2012

As I did last week, I’d like to begin this week by recognizing and thanking some individuals who made a point of letting me know they were still following these posts. Anarxus, J Gregory, and Darren– THANK YOU!

The news this week is almost the polar opposite of last week. In fact, it’s pretty great news. I bounced back and made huge progress on the Savage Tales edits. At the time of this writing, I only have one left to revise and one new one to write. I attribute this surge forward in part to some helpful writing advice and a renewed determination to keep the Tales succinct. Several weeks ago I explained how Ed’s Tales were short on detail whereas my Plot Points went overboard.  This past week I’ve really focused on keeping it to the essentials. Sure when I started the revisions for this chapter I made an effort to keep my word count under control, but when I wasn’t sure what direction a Tale should take my answer was to just keep writing until something clicked.  For the most part I cleaned up the extraneous stuff, but looking back I still see places where the prose got out of hand. So I’ll probably have to take a second pass through the chapter looking for ways to tighten up the writing. That should go way faster– maybe only an extra couple nights of work.

All in all, I feel REALLY good about my progress in the last week. The final chapter — characters and creatures — should go way faster. If I can keep up this pace, I’d say that in the next week or two I’ll be reporting that I’ve reached the end of the book. After that it’s one last pass through the manuscript for polish and cleanup, then it’ll be ready to return to Pinnacle.