The FRAGMENTS Book Tour!

January 24th, 2013

It’s book tour time! Fragments comes out in just a few weeks, and I will be back in the States for a quick signing tour. I’m not doing as many events as I normally like to do, mostly because living on a different continent has made that difficult, but the events I am doing are going to be awesome. Read on!

March 5, 6:30pm: Peerless Book Store, Alpharetta, GA
How could I do a tour without hitting one of my favorite stores ever? This is my only eastern stop this time around, alas, but it will be awesome.

March 6, 7:00pm: Provo Library, Provo, UT (Sponsored by King’s English)
Home again! This event will be big: not only is it my home town, but it’s the first stop of a Harper Dark Days tour, featuring a massive group of incredible authors–Debra Driza, Claudia Gray, Lauren Oliver, and Kiersten White with a special guest appearance by Brodi Ashton. Now you understand why they’re doing it in such a big venue.

March 7, 6:30pm: University Books, Seattle, WA *U District Location
The second stop of the Dark Days tour.

March 8, 6:30pm: Barnes & Noble, Clackamas, OR
This is our Portland event for Dark Days, held in Clackamas because…why not? I’ve never been to Clackamas. Come one and all.

March 9 — Double the Events!
10:00am: Tualatin Public Library, Tualatin, OR **location changed**
4:00pm: Eugene Public Library, Eugene, OR **location and time changed**
We’re canvas the state of Oregon so thoroughly they’ll never know what hit them. This is our final stop on the Dark Days super tour, so come see the whole group.

March 10, 3:00pm: Borderlands Books, San Francisco, CA
Have I told you how much I love this bookstore? Borderlands is the only store I know that is constantly, tirelessly improving itself. It is somehow physically better ever single time I go, and I go once or twice a year. Come spend your Sunday afternoon with us!

March 11, 7:00pm: Mysterious Galaxy, San Diego, CA
My final stop on the tour, and another of my favorite stores–I didn’t hit all my favorites this time, but the ones I did are spectacular. Come say goodbye before I wing my way back to Germany.

I’ll be in North America a few other times throughout the year, most notably the Writing Excuses Retreat in June and Vcon in October. I’d like to hit WorldCon and/or DragonCon, but I’m not holding my breath. Most of my events this year will be in Europe, and I’ll start announcing those appearances soon, including Germany, France, England, and as many others as I can manage.

If I’m in your area, please come say hello! I will deface your books and ask for good restaurant recommendations. AND, if I’m in the mood, I might read a little snippet here and there of some of my upcoming projects. It will be awesome.

I’ll see you soon.

Roleplaying Games With My Kids

January 11th, 2013

I’ve been an avid roleplayer ever since junior high, when I somehow stumbled on the game “TMNT and Other Strangeness” at the comic shop by my house. My brother and I played a ton, made new characters a WHOLE ton, and quickly started expanding into other games like Heroes Unlimited, Rifts, Toon, and so on. I never got actually got into D&D until college, when 3rd Edition came out, but since then I’ve had one game group or another meeting almost every week for the last fifteen years. For a while there I was in three campaigns at once–Pathfinder, L5R, and a wacky homebrew by Brandon Sanderson–and still couldn’t get enough. It’s one of my favorite hobbies, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting the day when my own kids would be old enough to play with me. I’m delighted to announce that this day has finally come.

When we moved to Germany, roleplaying was one of the many things that we left behind. I tried to convince my three gaming groups to drop everything and move with us, but they apparently have “jobs” and “families” and whatever, man, I don’t need them anyway. We’ve talked about trying to play over Skype or Google+, but even that’s not a great option thanks to the 8-hour time difference. My kids, on the other hand, were eager to jump in to Daddy’s favorite hobby, so I poked around for a good game to start with and, when one of the Grandpas asked for Christmas suggestions, quickly offered up “Marvel Heroic Roleplaying” from Margaret Weis Productions. My kids are avid superhero fans, even (and perhaps especially) the girls, so a game where you get to play as known heroes seemed like a great gateway into the larger hobby. I should point out that we’ve attempted some other games over the past year or so, and the one gap my kids still have in their roleplaying foresight is the idea of power balance: ask them to come up with their own character concept, and they’ll toss a ridiculously overpowered Mary Sue wish fulfillment monstrosity every single time. Even when I explain to them that weaknesses and limitations are what makes a character interesting, they still go a little crazy; one of my daughters created a superhero named Snapmind, who can do, be, or make absolutely anything in the entire world, instantly, except she has to snap her fingers in order to do it. Sounds super balanced, right? So yeah. Lets start by playing with pre-existing characters you already love, and go from there. We’ll get to the “create your own characters” part of roleplaying when we’re ready.

“Marvel Heroic Roleplaying,” or MHR, is a very simple, narrativist system, which is game-theorist-speak for roleplaying rules that focus on storytelling, from both the gamemaster (called the Watcher in this case) and the players. Every RPG is about storytelling, but a narrativist game takes it further, removing or lessening some of the standard considerations about power and “realism” (ie, the game does not try to simulate certain aspects of the real world like distance, ammunition, and so on). In MHR you take actions by rolling a big pool of dice and then choosing the best results, but the number and type of dice are controlling directly by your ability to tell a good story. If you say “my character punches the bad guy in the face” you might get three or four basic dice, but if you say “my character rips up a lamppost, swats away the thugs, then wraps it around the supervillain like a rope,” you get five or six dice, with more sides on them for potentially bigger numbers. There are rules to govern some of the more theatrical skills and powers, like whether your character’s actually strong enough to rip up a lampost, but for the most part that’s it: you tell an awesome story, and then awesome stuff happens. Combine that with well-known superheroes like Spider-man and Wolverine, and you’ve got a perfect game to play with my kids. Probably any kids, honestly, but my kids especially.

We took the shiny new Christmas present RPG book on our big vacation last week (which I have not yet blogged about, but I promise I will), bought a big old handful of dice from a hobby shop in Prague, and started our game one night in a Dresden hotel. I was playing with just my two oldest, 11 years and 9 years, and for their characters they chose, perhaps inspired by the eastern European vibe of the vacation overall, the two Russian superheroes in the book: Black Widow and the X-man named Colossus. I proposed a story about investigating a mysterious factory, because I’d worked out what I thought was a neat story, but they both immediately rebelled and demanded something more exciting and world-threatening. The factory idea would have eventually become world-threatening, but no matter; they wanted something more immediately flashy, and that’s fine. The game is there to have fun, so I asked them to propose some ideas of their own and figured I could wing it. We batted a few scenarios around, and at one point I proposed a time-travel idea: a villain tries to take over the world in the past, when there are no superheroes to stop him, and Black Widow and Colossus get sucked back in time and blah blah blah. My son said that time travel stories are lame, probably because his sister loves Doctor Who and he wanted to be contrary, and I said that I thought it would be fun because we’d just spent a week looking at medieval castles and stuff, and this would be an opportunity to play around with them in our game.

Instantly, and in perfect unison, my kids’ eyes lit up. “I know exactly what we should do!” My daughter cried. “I know exactly what you’re thinking!” said my son. I figured there was no way they were thinking the same thing, but I was amazingly wrong. Almost like they’d rehearsed it beforehand, they shouted together: “We go back in time, and Black Widow gets kidnapped by Elizabeth Bathory!” You see, one of the places we’d stopped on our vacation was the ruined castle of Elizabeth Bathory, and the kids had been enthralled by her story, even making up elaborate plots and movie pitches in the car. They thought the idea was the best thing ever, and I was down for it, so we dove in, and spent the first night getting their feet wet and learning the rules: they flew a jet, they dodged some lightning bolts, they got sucked through a portal, and ended up talking to a farmboy who couldn’t figure out why they were dressed so weird. The same two children who’d been convinced that the story would be lame unless the entire world was horrifically imperiled were now having the time of their lives just trying to figure out what they should say to this medieval farmboy, and how much they should reveal about themselves, and so on. We had a blast, and we spent the last few days of the vacation making jokes about “What year is this? I’m from the FUTURE.”

Our second game session was last week, when they finally got the chance to meet Elizabeth Bathory, learned that at least one other person was sucked through the time portal (THE PLOT THICKENS), and started to wonder if maybe Elizabeth Bathory wasn’t nearly as bad as they thought. They got into their first real combat, did some very clever, cinematic things, and ended on an exciting cliffhanger. The kids are getting really good at this, and I’m a very proud papa watching their little storytelling minds churn out one cool thing after another. Our next game session is tonight, and it’s going to be a doozy. This is seriously one of the best hobbies ever.

The FRAGMENTS book trailer is here!

January 3rd, 2013

When PARTIALS came out the publisher wanted to do a book trailer, but my editor ( Jordan Brown) and I didn’t want to do a normal trailer. This was a chance to do something weird and cool, and Jordan and I are all about weird and cool, so we hit on the idea of ‘found footage.’ Instead of just telling you about the story, we’d give you a new piece of it that you couldn’t get anywhere else–actual film or video from within the world of the book. 

That first trailer was a corporate video from ParaGen, the company that created the Partials, presented as a stockholder video telling ParaGen’s investors all about how much money the Partials would make them. There was nothing about the story or the characters, but the message of hubris came across loud and clear: this was a society playing God with the powers of life and death, and they were ripe for an apocalypse. 

Now we have a trailer for FRAGMENTS, the second book in the series, and we’re following the same tactic, with a different flavor. Pride was the perfect story to tell in the first trailer, but things have changed now: we’ve already met the Partials, we’ve seen the differences between us, and we’ve seen the world fall apart because of them. FRAGMENTS isn’t about the pride that ends the world, it’s about the hatred and fear that stops us from rebuilding it, and so our new book trailer is about that fear, and the irreconcilable differences it created–and nothing says irreconcilable differences like a political ad.

Here for your pleasure is another bit of found footage from the boundless files of Afa Demoux, archivist of the end of the world.

Mental Health Care, Mass Murder, and So On

December 17th, 2012

When I went on tour with THE HOLLOW CITY this summer, a book about schizophrenia, I started each signing and event with my personal feelings on the current state of mental illness care and treatment in the US. I won’t repeat the whole speech here, but I’ll give you the short version: it sucks. Mental illness in American culture is stigmatized, poorly diagnosed, and inadequately treated. This needs to change.

Caveat: In this blog post I’ll be talking primarily about dangerous mental conditions, and I want to say up front that it is not my intention to stigmatize mental illness further. The vast majority of mental disorders are not inherently violent, and the people who suffer from them need help, not fear or mistrust. Statistically speaking, everyone reading this post has at least one person with a mental disorder in their immediate family–it is a part of our lives that we need to embrace and study and deal with instead of sweeping under the rug. That said, some mental conditions, when untreated, do result in violence and danger, and we need to deal with those in the same open-minded, positive way.

A person in prison is five times more likely to be mentally ill than someone on the outside. This suggests one of two things: first, that people with mental illness find it difficult to live within the standard template of American society and end up breaking rules and laws. This is true, in the sense that we have built a society designed for people whose brains work in a certain way, with very little wiggle room for anyone else, and very little help offered to those who don’t fit the mold. Second, it suggests that people in prison are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness now that someone is paying close attention to them. This is also true, and suggests a further, much more important point: diagnosing and treating mental illness before it becomes a problem will help to keep these people out of prison in the first place. It will help them feel comfortable in, and function productively in, the society at large.

The most damning part of this situation is that it’s not accidental. Most mental illnesses, properly dealt with, won’t require legal intervention at all, but the dangerous ones will–and the treatment process for dangerous mental disorders in America literally relies on the prison system as a standard step in the procedure. Countless parents and spouses and children, trying to get a dangerously unstable loved one the treatment they need, are told the same thing: “we can’t do anything until he or she commits a crime.” Worried that your father might be sliding into violent dementia or psychosis? If he refuses treatment–and he will, because denying the problem is one of the common symptoms of dementia and psychosis–then there’s nothing you can do until he actually becomes violent and hurts somebody, at which point it might very well be too late. Worried that your spouse is becoming dangerously erratic and paranoid? Worried that your child might take his own life? My family dealt with a loved one (whom I will not identify) a few years ago who had become clinically depressed and suicidal, to the point where he needed constant care, but he literally could not get it–we had to wait until he tried to kill himself, hope that he failed, and THEN we could get him help. In our case we never had to go that far because his depression developed into an eating disorder, and we were able to get him committed to the hospital for malnutrition. But not every family has that luxury, and even then, we were only able to get him the help he needed when his life had been physically threatened. All of the mental threats, all of the underlying causes, were completely meaningless from a legal standpoint.

On one hand, you can see where the law is coming from: our legal system stands proudly on the principle that we are innocent until proven guilty, which expands into the principle that we can only be convicted of crimes we’ve actually committed, not crimes we think about committing. The same people who won’t throw you in jail just for talking about killing your boss also won’t throw you in a treatment facility just for talking about killing yourself. This system works for crime because it gives us the freedom to choose, and then holds us accountable for our choices; this doesn’t work for mental illness because mental illnesses very specifically attack–and often destroy–your ability to make informed choices. We’ve created a system that refuses to deal with the more dangerous facets of mental illness until they’ve already caused problems, when we should be focused on trying to prevent those problems in the first place. Worse still, once those problems have been caused, the people who caused them are more likely to be lost in the criminal and prison system than to receive any of the counseling and treatment they need. For a country that calls itself the greatest nation on Earth, that’s a pretty damning spot on our collective conscience.

My brother has been struggling with mental illness for a few years now, and wrote a very powerful piece in reaction to the Sandy Hook shootings that you should all read. It’s important to point out that Adam Lanza, the shooter in the Sandy Hook incident, did not have (at the time of this writing) a publicly announced mental disorder, but the signs are clear that he probably had clinical depression at the very least. Testimonials from his father and his school counselor show a long history, of joyless, friendless, lifeless life. We can talk about gun control all we want, and that’s definitely a conversation that needs to happen, but banning guns wouldn’t have prevented this massacre anymore than access to guns caused it. Guns certainly made the massacre more effective and deadly, but they didn’t cause it; it was caused by a severely disturbed mind who had nowhere to go and no one to help him, who made a very bad decision that could have been avoided with the right care and attention. My heart breaks for the children and teachers who died, and for all of their families and friends, but it also breaks for Adam.

I might be losing some of you here, because nobody wants to sympathize with a man who murders children, but I can’t help it. The more we learn about his life, the more tragic he becomes–and no, this does not excuse his choices. I’m not trying to excuse him, I’m trying to understand him, and why he did what he did, and figure out how similar events can be prevented in the future. America has a mass murder about every six months, on average, which makes this one horrific and shocking but, sadly, right on schedule. Sometime in the next five to eight months we will have another. Tightening our security standards for gun ownership might help reduce the body count of future massacres, but it won’t stop them from happening; without semiautomatic weapons close at hand, Adam Lanza might not have moved on to the school, but he most likely still would have killed his mother and himself. We should not consider that an acceptable alternative.

If we want to stop this kind of thing we need to look at the root causes–not just at the weapons or the decisions to use them but the people who make those decisions in the first place. We need mental health care to be available, accessible, and unstigmatized, so that Adam’s school counselor has some resources to work with the next time he identifies a teen with obvious pain and trauma. We need somewhere people can go when they know they have a problem, and we need some way of dealing effectively with people who refuse treatment even though everyone around them can tell they have a problem. We need some way for people like my brother–a successful, well-intentioned family man who recognizes his problem and does everything he can to treat it–to be able to afford the treatments that help him and every one of us live normal, happy, healthy lives.

Do we really want to call ourselves the greatest country on Earth? Then let’s start acting like it. Support mental health care. Support people with mental illnesses. Spread the word, share your love, open your hearts. Find someone struggling and help them. We can do this.

My Troubled Relationship With The Lone Ranger Trailer

December 14th, 2012

I love westerns. I love them dearly. Some of my favorite movies of all time are westerns, pointing specifically at The Searchers and the modern remake of 3:10 to Yuma, and then down among the “movies I love but aren’t top 10″ there are too many to list. There’s something very powerful to me about westerns, possibly because I grew up in the American West, but also because they are perfect venues for stories about morality. The Old West was a unique situation in world history, where modern, civilized people were thrown together in a barbaric and uncivilized place–the same open emptiness that gave them freedom also took them away from law and society, and the best Westerns deal with this contradiction head-on. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance presents Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne as opposite sides of this coin–one representing law and the other representing violence–and makes the very complex, even tragic point that while law may be better, it can’t exist without violence. Out on the plains and miles away from civilization you can have as many laws as you want, but they’re not going to matter unless your local police have more guns than your local criminals. This is true everywhere, and at the end of the day all law extends from the threat of violence, but westerns are an almost perfect venue for exploring that concept in detail. In a western the social pressures are different: people are good or bad not because society is forcing them to be, but because they are making the conscious choice to be so.

I love westerns so much that I am often tempted to write one, and in fact I have several westerns in the back of my mind, waiting for the day that I have enough time in my schedule to write something I probably won’t get a lot of money out of. Western movies are on the rise, but western books, as a market, are still incredibly hard to sell. When I contributed to the Monsters and Mormons anthology I wrote a western novella (albeit with zombies and superpowers), which was fun, but it didn’t really sate my appetite so much as whet it. I want to write more. But there’s another big reason I haven’t taken the plunge, much more important than the money, and it’s this: I don’t know how to properly portray the Indians.

Even that word is bad–Indians–but the trouble is that I don’t even have a really solid fix on a sensitive alternative. I’ve been told, by a Native American, that we should say “Native American” because “Indian” is insulting, but I’ve also been told, by a different man from a different tribe, that we should say “American Indian” because “Native” is insulting. My research online suggests that the second guy’s opinion is far less common, and “Native American” or just plain “Native” is the accepted terminology, but the mere fact that there’s a difference of opinion makes this a very hard question to answer. And this isn’t even the problem with writing a book–if I were to write one I would just use the specific tribal names and be done with it. The bigger problem is how to present them as characters and a culture. I don’t want to use the old excuse that “everyone thought of them as savages, so it’s okay to portray them that way,” but I also don’t want to get so involved with showing their side of things that it takes over the story, but I also don’t want to just ignore them. They were a huge part of life in the old west, and their story deserves to be told, but it deserves to be told properly, and I’m just very leery about my ability to do that.

Which brings us to the new Lone Ranger movie. The trailer looks cool–the ideal mix of action and justice and heroism that a Lone Ranger story should have–and, yes, it looks like the movie is making Tonto a bigger character and trying to make the two leads a little more equal than they have been in the past. But on the other hand, the movie trailer really screams “a bunch of white people made this movie without actually talking to anyone from the Native culture they’re attempting to portray.” Despite my complaints about not knowing much about Native American culture, I at least know enough to recognize that Tonto’s costume in the movie is a weird mish-mash of different tribes and some crazy made-up crap that looks good on camera. Tonto’s breastplate, for example, is clearly from a plains culture, but the headband is very southwest. The do-rag, of course, is pure Captain Jack Sparrow, and the bird on his head is classic “hollywood production designer” with no basis in any Native culture I’m familiar with. And, of course, Johnny Depp himself is not Native–he has said in interviews that “I guess I have some Native American [in me] somewhere down the line…Cherokee or maybe Creek Indian,” but that’s like hiring me to play a Norwegian guy: sure, my great-grandma was Norwegian, but that doesn’t mean I look, speak, or act Norwegian in any way, and have nothing to contribute to a Norwegian role that an actual Norwegian guy couldn’t do better. I suppose the point could be made that a modern Native American is so culturally removed from an 1860s-ish Native American that they wouldn’t really have anything to add in the role either, especially considering that Tonto isn’t based on an existing tribe anyway, but at that point you’re using the movie’s inaccuracy to justify its own inaccuracy, which is fairly useless ground to walk on.

I’ve written before about race-bending in movie casting, and my opinions of it are layered but generally very solidly on the “don’t do it” side. Last summer at Comic-Con I had a meeting with a big-name production company about a potential PARTIALS movie (and no, I can’t yet tell you who it was), and one of the biggest questions I asked them was if they were prepared to actually cast an Indian girl as Kira (not Native American, but actual Indian). It’s very important to me to get this right. One of the best movies I saw in 2012 was Argo, a based-on-real-life story about a CIA expert extracting hostages from Iran; it was excellent, and I loved every minute, and I think Ben Affleck deserves a Best Director Oscar for it, but Affleck also played the CIA guy, who in real life was Latino. The closing credits showed a fascinating slide show of side-by-side photos, comparing the movie characters and sets and images to their real-life counterparts, and I wanted to stand up and cheer for their amazing attention to detail…but then we got to the shot of the very white Ben Affleck, followed by a shot of the very Mexican Tony Mendez, and it felt jarring and wrong. Yes, Affleck did a good job in the role–his acting wasn’t as stellar as his directing, but it was good. But how cool would it have been to give that same role to a Mexican actor? Someone who’s sick of playing drug dealers on Breaking Bad, or gangsters in Southland, and would absolutely nail a role as a handsome, dashing, Mexican-American hero? And how cool would it have been–and this is the much bigger point for me–for a Latino kid or teen or even adult to be able to go to the theater and see this amazing movie and be presented with a hero who looks like them, someone they can identify with, someone who lets them see themselves in a leading role? I didn’t understand the real importance of this–of kids who want to see themselves as their heroes–until my daughters started asking me for more books and movies about girls. Growing up white and male I could always see myself as the heroes of my favorite stories, but it isn’t that easy for everyone else, and a movie like Argo, or PARTIALS, or even The Lone Ranger is an amazing chance to do that. I don’t believe that casting the wrong race is inherently evil, but I do think it’s a tragic missed opportunity. We should be going out of our way to find and create those opportunities, and then do the very best we can with them. And The Lone Ranger, instead of taking that opportunity, appears to have run the other direction.

I’m not saying the movie will be horrible, or even that the character of Tonto will be horrible–all I’ve seen is a two-minute trailer, and for all I know Tonto is presented as a culturally-empowering, three-dimensional hero. But I am saying that I doubt it greatly. I want to love this movie because I love westerns, and I want people to make more of them, and I love the things they can say about humanity and the exciting, iconic ways they can say them. But I have grave doubts about Tonto, and I wanted to put them out there.

Dan’s Heist Game Prototype

November 14th, 2012

As promised, the prototype is here! Anyone and everyone who’s interested in helping to playtest, dive in. I’ll use this page to guide the playtest (unless it gets unwieldy), so please leave your comments below, and be sure to let me know your name–I want to properly credit everyone for their contributions if this eventually gets published.

The file is here: Heist Game Prototype v1
All the instructions you need to prepare the prototype and play the game are right there in the file. Have fun!

Notes:

November 14, 2012: This is the first draft. The basic game is pretty smooth, but the advanced game needs a lot of work. Play the basic game first, see how it works, and then dive into the advanced game and tell me what you think. I know what I think the problems are, but I want to hear what you think they are.

My Game Design I Keep Talking About

October 29th, 2012

I’ve been designing games since I was kid. The first one I can remember creating actual components for was a board-based wargame for my Battle Beasts; the rules are long gone, but I still have the board somewhere. I designed a massive game of Clue with dozens of rooms and characters and weapons (and motives and accomplices, etc.) which was specifically intended as a joke and was, as expected, completely unplayable. When I realized that the Reading merit badge for Boy Scouts had a requirement that could be filled by designing a game I created one based on Douglas Adam’s Dirk Gently series–that was a weird one–and somehow I talked my sixth grade teacher into letting my final project on Central America be a board game about Manuel Noriega. I’ve designed roleplaying games and miniatures games and collectible card games and just about every kind of game you can imagine, all mostly just for fun and just for myself.

I consider game design to be very similar to fiction writing, at least in terms of why I do it and what I get out of it. Both are creative outlets that let me tell a story and craft an experience for my audience. If I can get you to feel something while reading my books or playing my games, I’ve done a good job; if I can get you to feel something specific, I’ve done a great job. Both have a bit of a puzzle-solving vibe to them, as you attempt to use a limited amount of resources in different permutations to create a desired outcome. My various notebooks and computers are as filled with notes for game ideas as they are for novel ideas. And most of them are just as untenable :)

One thing I eventually started doing was, instead of creating new games from scratch, just modifying the games I had. This is especially prevalent with games that didn’t work right to begin with, like Marvel Heroes, but sometimes I do it with games I love, like Hollywood Blockbuster, which had great gameplay but not nearly enough theme to go with it. I wrote all over my game pieces for that one, and in the process realized that it could be rethemed to make an awesome Star Trek game: instead of collecting actors and directors and effects and such to make a movie, you could collect captains and science officers and so on to complete missions in space. With that, the wheels were turning, and I drafted up long lists of crew members and ships and on and on until suddenly the idea crashed into another idea in my backlog of “use this someday” files, and I realized I had a much bigger opportunity here.

As it accrued new ideas, the game I was designing diverged massively from Hollywood Blockbuster, becoming different enough that I realized it was actually sell-able as its own game. It was also, in my opinion, good enough to actually sell, which is important. It was not, however, sell-able as a Star Trek game, because I didn’t want to mess with the licensing issues that would require, so I re-themed it once again into its current form: Heist, a game about crews of thieves and hackers and masterminds carrying out elaborate capers and cons. The basic mechanics are the same–you recruit specialists, form them into teams, and perform missions (now called jobs)–but the flavor was new and unique. I chose Heist movies as a theme partly because I love them, and partly because it’s not a theme I’ve ever seen in a game before, which struck me as a great opportunity. (There may well be other heist games out there, I just haven’t seen them.) As I transferred everything to the new theme I tweaked it here and there to make sure it felt right, so you were legitimately playing a heist story and not a Star Trek story in a costume, and then I was done, and it was pretty good, and…what now?

I’ll tell you what now: I don’t have the time or the resources for a what now. Producing games is very, very different from designing them, and while Kickstarter has made the idea a lot more approachable than it used to be, that’s still not very approachable. The sheer investment of time, not even counting the money, would carve months off my writing, and I have so much writing these days that I start to drown if I miss a week, let alone months. So once again, the idea was shelved. I had vague plans of someday writing a heist book just so I could sell the game as a tie-in, but if that ever happened it would be years in the future.

This is where AEG comes in, a game company I’m already a huge fan of (they publish Legend of the Five Rings, which you may have heard me proclaiming as my favorite roleplaying game ever). They had a massive booth at the Essen game fair, where I went two weeks ago with a friend, where they were debuting a new line of shared-world games that I’d heard a bit about, and was excited to try. The shared world is called Tempest, a kind of renaissance-era city-state in an imaginary (but non-fantasy) world, and they were using it to tie together a bunch of political and economic games. I was a cool idea, and I was excited to see if the games were as interesting as the concept behind them, so we hung around the booth and waited for an empty table and ran through a quick demo of both Courtier and Love Letter. They were so awesome I bought them both instantly, but more than that, the Tempest setting itself was great: it’s very character-based, full of plots and schemes and underhanded deals. And here’s the key: they were actively looking for new game ideas to expand it. My first thought was “My heist game would be a pretty good fit for this.” My second thought was a slightly more excited “that would actually work out great, because they’d take care of all the artwork and production and distribution and advertising that I don’t have time or experience to do.” My third thought was basically just “ohmygoshthiscouldactuallyworkIcouldpublishagamethiswouldbesoawesomeohmygosh.” The friend I was with was obviously thinking along the same lines, as the first thing he said when we walked away from the booth was “The Tempest world might be a really good fit for that game you were telling me about.” Yes. Yes it could.

AEG has a neat Tempest development site set up to work with prospective game designers, which I applied for, and when I got into that I used their submission system to pitch my heist game. This was pretty much exactly what it felt like back in the days before I published any books, sending out queries and desperately hoping somebody liked them enough to ask for more. A few days later AEG asked for more: they want a full prototype of my game, and think it would be a great fit for Tempest. But they were careful to say (and wise to say it) that I should playtest it and polish it and hone it to a killing edge before sending it in. “We’d rather have one great game than ten good ones,” the letter pointed out, which seems awesome to me. This is essentially the same thing as an editor saying “I loved your pitch for this book, please send me the full manuscript but make sure it’s as good as possible first.” So on the one hand I have to make it clear that I have not as yet sold anything, and this is basically just an editor reading a manuscript to see if they like it. On the other hand, as you aspiring writers out there can attest, getting an editor to request your full manuscript is a huge deal, and you get very excited, and you feel like jumping up and down and celebrating like a crazy person, never mind the fact that it doesn’t technically mean anything will ever happen and you’re still more likely to get rejected than sell the story. That’s where I am with this game design: it doesn’t really mean anything, but at the same time it means everything.

I’ve already had this game designed for months, like I said, so it was relatively easy for me to print it out and and play a few rounds with my family. My wife and two older kids loved the basic version, and I was delighted to see that the pacing held up and the game was fun to play. When we tried the advanced version it kind of fell apart, though, which sucks because that’s the version I was really excited about, but that’s what playtesting is for. So here’s what I’m going to do: once I get this prototype a little prettier (there’s a lot of post-printing work my kids and I had to do, that I can do a lot more simply digitally), I’m going to post it here in full and let anyone and everyone download it, print it out, and play it. I’ll keep a running commentary on the known issues and design goals, and as I get your feedback I’ll tweak the game and put out new versions. I want you to tear this game apart (lovingly) so we can make it as awesome as possible. That will take me a couple of days to set up, though, because as I mentioned, I have tons of writing to do and no time to waste. Contracts I’ve already signed come first, and Heist will remain, for now, an after-hours hobby.

But if we can make it as good as it is in my head, oh baby.

Cryptogenic Organizing Pneumonitis

October 18th, 2012

Let me tell you a story.

A little over a month ago, on September 9, my Mom emailed me a short, panicked message: “Call Me.” She couldn’t just call me herself, of course, since she lives in Utah and I live in Germany, an 8-hour difference, and her mid-afternoon email arrived long after I should have been in bed. But I’m never in bed when I’m supposed to be, so I was awake, and I gave her a call. The news was bad, but not really shattering: my Dad was sick, and had been for weeks, and now it was worse than ever and he refused to go to a doctor. This is not surprising, because Dad never goes to doctors when he can help it. There was a lot of “Oh, you know Dad,” and “It’s probably just his asthma,” and so on, but my Mom wasn’t mollified. She’s known this man for decades, and she can tell when he’s legitimately sick. He could barely walk without turning gray and gasping for air, and she was worried.

The next day Dad went to work, walked up the stairs to his office, and called the doctor. That’s how we knew it was serious–he called the doctor on his own, voluntarily. He went in and was almost immediately diagnosed with pneumonia, and “maybe a heart attack,” which is a weird thing to hear from a doctor. You want to know if it is or isn’t a heart attack, none of this “maybe” nonsense. The doctor did ever test he could think of, held Dad as long as he could without actually hospitalizing him, and made another appointment for the following day. Dad’s condition worsened, and when he went back in the next day the doctor did some more tests and sent him straight to the hospital; the pneumonia had now been upgraded to “double pneumonia,” which makes about as much sense as “maybe a heart attack,” but at least now the “maybe” had been downgraded to “probably not,” so that was something.

All through this, of course, my Mom would call me–or email me to call her–every day, because she needed someone to talk to. Of her three children, my sister lives in Ohio and has crippling health problems of her own, and my brother, the only one still left in Utah, has a panic disorder: not exactly the kind of person you can unload all your troubles on. She needed someone she could call and say “I think he’s really sick this time, and I don’t know what to do,” and getting those calls and knowing there was nothing I could do from the other side of the world was maddening.

Dad ended up on oxygen, three liters of pressure, which was low enough that he could leave the hospital and push around one of those little tanks of wheels. This was just in time for my grandparents’ 60th anniversary cruise, which is one of the more surreal parts of the story: in the middle of his mysterious “double pneumonia,” my Dad took off for a week long cruise to Mexico. This sounds luxurious, but in hindsight it may have been a lifesaver, because the move from Utah’s thin, high-elevation, full-of-smoke-from-forest-fires air down to Mexico’s warm, rich, humid air did wonders for his lungs. He could even walk around the boat a bit without the oxygen, which was a bigger deal than we realized.

(The cruise, by the way, was hilarious: it was my grandparents’ 60th anniversary, and my grandpa’s 80th birthday, so they’d invited all their children–my aunts and uncles–and bought the tickets a year in advance. Then my aunt broke her leg, and my dad got pneumonia, and my uncle had a cold, and in the end my 80-year-old grandpa and my Mom with MS were the healthiest people in the group.)

With two days left to go on the cruise, my Dad got suddenly worse–still healthy enough that he could fly home, but barely. Instead of three liters of oxygen and leisurely walks around the block, he was at ten liters of oxygen just to lie in bed doing nothing; fifteen if he had to get up to use the restroom. He was back in the hospital full time, but in a better one this time, and my complete inability to do anything about it was driving me up the wall. My mom would send out positive updates, assuring us all that everything was fine, but the situation only got worse. The doctors would try a sure-fire pneumonia cure and it would do nothing; they’d try another, and the same thing happened. On Sunday, October 7, his lungs failed completely. He required 60 liters of oxygen pressure just to live–the machine was literally breathing for him. He was rushed to the ICU, and my Mom put on her bravest face, but there’s only so many ways you can spin “his lungs have failed and nothing works and he’s getting worse faster than the hospital can keep up.” I decided to hell with the Atlantic ocean, I was going home, and I booked a flight for the next morning. I was home within 24 hours of hearing the news, and my sister soon after, and though none of us would say it out loud, we were all starting to wonder if this was it. If we were going home to help, or to say goodbye.

But a lot, it turns out, can happen in 24 hours. After days and weeks of diagnosing and treating and trying and failing, the doctors figured out what it was: Cryptogenic Organizing Pneumonitis, which is a fancy way of saying “there’s something growing in your lungs but we don’t know what and none of our medicines work on it.” Most pneumonia is bacterial, and the rest is viral, and all the drugs they use to treat it work on those two causes, but with COP the muck in your lungs is something else–I don’t know what, fungus maybe, or some kind of evil spirits. It’s very rare, and very dangerous, and it’s called “organizing” because it literally gets in and starts remodeling your lungs to suit its own purposes, none of which are breathing. But in every other way it looks and acts like normal pneumonia, so the only way to diagnose it is to try and fail with every other pneumonia in the book, and when none of them work you know it’s COP, and you know exactly how to treat it. This happened while I was in the air, and the doctors started him on prednisone, and by the time I landed and raced to the hospital he had turned a corner. He had gotten slightly–every so slightly–better, the first time in over a month that a change had been positive.

My sister finally made it (her flight itinerary on US Air involved not one but two broken planes, a full day of delays, and an overnight stay in Phoenix), and together we set about trying to help. I cleaned some of the house. My sister took our Mom shopping. We spent hours in the hospital talking to Dad–he rarely talked back, of course–and hours more hanging out with Mom, watching movies, doing laundry, doing whatever we could to make life easier, or better, or at the very least more normal. Inspired by Mary Robinette Kowal, who reads her manuscripts aloud as part of an editing pass, I read my latest manuscript to my Dad, who loved it. We watched him progress through various benchmarks of breathing ability–using less pressure, using different masks, taking longer walks, achieving higher levels of oxygen saturation. We became intimately familiar with the minutia of the equipment, and the nurses, and even the terminology.

The first day I arrived I talked to the doctor, who introduced COP to my Dad as “that long confusing word we talked about before.” I asked what the word was, and he asked if I had a medical background. “Not really,” I told him, “but I’ve published five medical thrillers,” which is only a slight exaggeration: the John Cleaver books are not overtly medical, but they are directly concerned with psychiatric evaluation and profiling; PARTIALS is at least one third medical thriller, with a very detailed study of virology, and THE HOLLOW CITY is set in a mental hospital with a plot centered around diagnosis, neural chemistry, and drug interactions. I didn’t mention BLACKER DARKNESS. The doctor was impressed enough that he started taking me much more seriously than the rest of the family, opening up about that their theories and treatments and even inviting me to their meetings. I had a front row seat to everything they thought and tried and did, and it was awesome. And every day, my Dad got a little bit better.

My last night in Utah was Sunday, October 14. He was on a canula now instead of a mask, and they were giving him 40% oxygen, and he was maintaining a steady 91% saturation rate. The feeding tube was gone, and he could have real food again. He was still in the ICU, but only because they were concerned that something COULD go wrong, because he’d been so bad for so long they didn’t dare believe that he was good again. I set up my laptop on the little rolling hospital table, and we watched THE AVENGERS and ate pumpkin pie. It was the most normal thing he’d done in over a month. The next day I flew home, and the day after that they moved him out of the ICU, and somehow, whether through prayers or miracles or drugs or sheer force of will his numbers went up. Instead of 91% saturation he was maintaining a strong 95%, and even when he got up to walk it didn’t drop below 90%. I suspect that the simple act of moving out of the ICU–the most tangible sign of progress yet–gave him a renewed vigor, and as he cheered up his body started fighting harder. This morning I had another message from my Mom, not urgent but jubilant, saying that he is probably going home tomorrow. You have to realize that this is amazing: even with the progress we’d seen the week before we expected him to be in the hospital at least another week; his improvement was steady, but it was slow. And then for some reason it wasn’t slow anymore. The doctor was almost in tears, and Mom said she could see him physically trying not to say “just one week ago we thought he was gone,” because everybody thought he was gone. In ten days he’d progressed from “alien monsters are eating your lungs and we can’t do anything about it” to “you’re great, we’ll send you home tomorrow.” It was shocking, but it was exactly the kind of shocking we love.

My Dad’s health isn’t perfect, and it might never be again. The disease had a whole month to remodel his lungs, and they never did figure out what was up with his heart. Life is crazy, and anything can happen, and if there’s one thing I learned from the doctors it was “Don’t make predictions because they’re almost always wrong.” I don’t know what will happen next, but my Dad’s alive, and breathing, and going home, and for now that’s the best news ever.

In which I whine incessantly about that terrible SKYFALL song

October 5th, 2012

So apparently I’m blogging on Fridays now? Okay. Cool.

In this week’s episode of our pop culture podcast, Do I Dare To Eat A Peach?, my brother and I took a long (probably too long) look at the Bond movies, and specifically at the Bond theme songs. Our goal, inspired by a similar Tor.com article, was to determine which movie had the widest gap of quality between movie and song: a terrible song with an awesome movie, or vice versa. This was timed, in part, to get us ready for the release of the new Skyfall theme song by Adele, which came out last night. Obviously we haven’t seen the movie yet, so we can’t do our full quality differential analysis, but we can at least comment on the song.

That terrible, terrible song.

Adele, to be fair, is a fantastic choice for a Bond song. She’s got the kind of power in her voice that Shirley Bassey would be proud of, and her classic, old school sound is what made her famous in the first place. That’s part of what makes this song so disappointing. Admittedly, the song doesn’t really give her a lot to work with, but she still manages to sing it with as little personality as possible. If I hadn’t found the song on her personal YouTube channel I’d be convinced I’d accidentally stumbled onto the leaked demo version that’s been floating around, because there’s no way this feels like a polished version of a real performance.

The lyrics are the worst offender, so I’ll save those for last. First I want to complain about the way the music doesn’t build to anything. Yes, we get a full orchestra coming in on the chorus, but there’s no power behind it. It’s the most laid-back orchestral kick you’ve ever heard. Meanwhile, the verses themselves are as straightforward as they can possibly be, without anything interesting to distinguish them. Compare, for example, the first two verses of Goldeneye: the second one has a wonderful little high part behind it, almost like the music is sneaking around behind Tina Turner’s voice. It’s telling a story. It has personality. All Skyfall has is a nonchalant dedication to finishing the song without dropping the book it’s trying to balance on its head.

And now: the lyrics. The first stanza is actually pretty good:

This is the end.
Hold your breath and count to ten.
Feel the earth move, and then
Hear my heart burst again.

It’s determined to keep that rhyme going, but it does it smoothly, without cheating on its rhythm and always maintaining a standard flow of speech. That’s how a normal human would construct a sentence, which is more than a lot of songs can say. Then we get to the second stanza, where this all goes out the window and she really has to stretch to get the right syllables on the right beats:

For this is the end.
I’ve drowned and dreamed this moment
So overdue, I owe them
Swept away, I’m stolen.

Cheating on the rhythm? Check. That’s not how “moment” is pronounced, Adele. Cheating on the cadence of normal human speech? Check. I couldn’t even figure out how to punctuate the two middle lines. And we haven’t even gotten to the worst part yet, which is every time she says the word Skyfall:

Let the sky fall, when it crumbles
We will stand tall
Or face it all together
At skyfall.

Skyfall is where we start
A thousand miles and poles apart.

I was with you on that first instance, when you broke the word in half. “Let the sky fall” is a great apocalyptic line, and very fitting for a Bond song. The second instance, referring to the falling of the sky by the compound noun “skyfall,” is less forgivable, but it’s the name of the movie so I’ll let you get away with it. “Skyfall is where we start,” on the other hand, is just lazy writing. It doesn’t mean anything, and it’s a baldfaced attempt to cram in the title of the movie again, in case we forgot it. It’s verbal product placement, like including a line where she sings about how Coke is so refreshing. This seems like a weird thing to complain about after I’ve just praised the Goldeneye song, which uses the word “goldeneye” pretty constantly despite it never really meaning anything, but the difference is that Tina Turner sells it. She sings with attitude, and that covers a multitude of sins. Adele sounds like she’s sight-reading to see if the song’s in her range, and it never gets off the ground, and that makes every lyrical shortcut sound worse.

Part of the problem, of course, is that Bond songs traditionally use the movie’s title as a refrain, and there’s just not a lot you can do with “Skyfall.” They could have done better than the elementary-school rhyme “we will stand tall,” but even then, it’s not a lot to work with. Compare The World is Not Enough, which is at least a phrase, and which Shirley Manson followed up with some interesting new ideas (“But it is such a perfect place to start” is deviously fun). Compare Die Another Day, which Madonna uses as a mantra in the chorus and then augments with weird, disjointed phrases in the verses (mirrored by weird, disjointed tuning effects, which holds it all together). If you really want to feel depressed, compare Another Way to Die, the theme song from Quantum of Solace, where Jack White and Alicia Keys just threw the title out all together and wrote a brilliant song full of clever lyrics, impressionist imagery, and a perfect suggestion of Bond, without just beating it over the head by saying “Skyfall” a hundred times.

To it’s credit, Skyfall is not the worst Bond song ever. We’ll always have All Time High. But as awesome as it could have been to hear Adele go back to Bond’s Shirley Bassey roots and sing the hell out of some killer nightclub torch song, that’s not what we got. The lyricist phoned it in, the composer painted by numbers, and Adele acts like she doesn’t know the mic is turned on. A solid remix with some new arrangement and more personality could save this, but they’re touting it as the official movie version, so I doubt it will change.

I just hope the movie’s better. History has proven that bad Bond songs tend to be paired with bad Bond movies. I really want to like this one.

Playing SET with book titles:

September 28th, 2012

Since I haven’t blogged this week, and since I opened the can of worms on twitter/facebook, let’s talk about this: what will the name of the third Partials book be?

Obviously the short answer is “whatever I decide to name it, as approved by the Harper sales team,” but there are a lot of considerations to go through before we get there. And as part of those considerations, I get to talk about card games: one of my favorite card games is SET, which I was introduced to in college. You have a big deck of cards, and each card has an image with four traits: shape, number, color, and shading. You lay out a grid of three by four cards and then look for sets of three, with sets defined as “each trait must be the same across all cards, or different across all cards.” So, for example, a set could include three of one shape, or one each of all three shapes, but it can’t have one of one shape and two of the next. Each trait has to be all the same, or all different. This is a fantastic combination of “brain-burner puzzle game” and “quick filler game,” and I play it all the time. It’s one of the few games I brought with me to Germany. One of our favorite things to do in college was sit in a common area and start playing, and then watch as people stopped to watch. Most people would ask how to play, and that was cool, but the best thing was when people would stop, observe for a minute, and then figure it out all on their own and start collecting sets. That’s when we knew we’d met someone extra geeky/awesome.

So what does this have to do with book titles? The geeky/awesome ones have already figured it out. The titles (and covers) of a trilogy should follow the same rule of forming sets: every trait should ideally be either all the same or all different. (Within reason, of course; every rule has exceptions). The Bourne movies are a great example: the first is The Bourne Identity, and the second The Bourne Supremacy, so obviously the third has to be The Bourne [Something] as well. Calling the third one Ultimatum would have been dumb, because it wouldn’t feel like it fit, but calling it The Bourne Ultimatum was perfect.

(My first trilogy, you’ll note, did not follow this naming strategy at all, and that’s completely my fault and it’s always kind of bugged me. I Am not a Serial Killer and I Don’t Want to Kill You are both statements, they both start with I, they’re both denials, and then for some reason the one in the middle is nothing like them. This is because the original name for the third book was “Full of Holes,” which kept our set consistent, and by the time we decided to change it the second book was already in print. Alas. It doesn’t help that half the people I meet on book tours refer to the middle book as Mr. Murder instead of Mr. Monster. I still think Mr. Monster is a great name, but the fact that it breaks the set rules gets under my skin.)

So let’s take a look at the Partials series. We named the first one Partials because it’s an awesome name, and then for the second book I proposed two: “Fragments” and “Failsafe.” The sales team preferred the former, and it’s a great name so hooray, but it set us on a very specific path for book three: both titles have only one word, which are kind of sort of synonyms of each other, albeit with different connotations, and therefore the third one must follow the same format. The working title in my head for the past several months has been “Smithereens,” because it makes me laugh, but obviously we need something cooler than that. My two favorite runners-up have been “Splinters” and “Slivers,” and when I pitched the question on the Internet today those were definitely the most common suggestions, but neither of them really say what I want them to say. Also suggested, some in jest and some serious, were “Remnants,” “Shards,” “Pieces,” “Bits,” “Chunks,” “Ruins,” “Parts,” and “Dust.” I particularly like that last one (partly because it’s the name of my favorite X-Men character), but it a) isn’t plural, and is therefore different from our first two titles, and b) still doesn’t really say what I want it to say. I like “Remnants,” except then we have two titles that end with the same syllable, and that will bug me to death.

The hard part is not just choosing a cool synonym, but setting the right tone. “Partials” works for the first book because it conveys in one word not just the central science fictional element,but the attitude society has to that element. There are artificial people who are not “full” humans, and thus don’t deserve the same rights and considerations that we do. That arrogance is what ended the world and set up the whole series. Likewise, “Fragments” works for the second because it references not only their society (fragmented by war and dissidents) but the state of the characters (separated and alone) and the driving force of the plot (piecing together the answers to the first book’s questions). Both words mean “something that isn’t whole,” but they mean it in different ways.

What I’m really looking for with the third book is something with the right mix of hope and despair: pieces that are broken apart, but could maybe still be put together into something new and better. “Cells” has a great ring to it, implying both the building blocks of life and the semi-blind units of terrorism. “Bones” has a similar dichotomy, mixing life and death, but I’m not sold on either just yet. This will take some thinking.

And by all means, keep the suggestions pouring in. Just remember the rules of SET.