Friday, August 25, 2017

The Diary Of No Fate (A Shadowrun Actual Play)

Today I'm doing something a little different. You probably know, by now, that I'm a fan and regular player of Tabletop RPGs. Well, I'm also a fan of RPG Actual Plays. If you know what video game Let's Plays are, it's a similar concept. I play in an RPG, I then write up events of that game, and you (if you so choose) read those chronicles, and I probably bookend it with come commentary, like this. I've actually been doing this for a while, just never shared them.

I have a pretty long backlog of write ups for a Deadlands campaign I've been running for nearly two years. Back in 2012, I was running a superhero game and the write ups for that are still floating around. Anyway, rather than keep them a secret, I've decided to share the love.

Also, this Actual Play is a little different. Standard for an RPG Actual Play is the GM writes up the events of the game as an objective play-by-play and gives some behind the scenes perspective. I'm not running this game, I'm playing in it, and so I'm trying to come at the Actual Play a little differently by writing it up in character.

No Fate is a dwarven physical adept (magically enhanced, rather than spell casting magic) in the year 2075, living in Hong Kong as a shadow runner. She's only been a criminal for about six months, after quitting her Knight Errant job because an eagle spirit told her to. Actually, Eagle just said she is destined to do greater things than work for Knight Errant, and she took that to mean being a shadowrunner because her favourite thing in the world is a TV series called 'Gunhaver and the Shadow Commandos.' But enough set up.

I give you, The Diary of No Fate, Episode 1: Better To Give


All I wanted was to catch a glimpse of Crack Stuntman as he came through Hong Kong International airport. Maybe get him to sign my replica Gunhaver armoured duster. I’d been loitering in arrivals about an hour when the Aleph icon flashed in my AR. My first thought was that it must be some kind of spam in the Ares Trode-band firmware. My second thought was that while this icon, whatever it was, obscured my view, I’d never see the well-polished combat boots of Crack Stuntman and his entourage (does he still have the sponsorship deal with Aztech’s synth-leather line?) go by amongst the see of legs in front of me. It wasn’t until my third thought that I decided to see what Aleph was and why it had decided now was a good time to get all up in my augmented field of view. Tap tap, digital tap.

A job offer. Go to the business class lounge to meet a contact. It wasn’t why I’d come star gazing at the airport, but I had a hunch the Crack Stuntman rumour wasn’t going to pan out and if I turned down work, I’d face not just the chance of coming up short for this month’s rent, but I’d fail Gunhaver. After all, when Gunhaver takes the job, Gunhaver gets the job done. And Gunhaver always takes the job. So, slot the rumours, it’s business time.

When I reached the business lounge, a queue had started to form and it was four chummers long (an eccentric crew of outcasts if ever I’d seen them. Runners all, for sure) before security let us in to meet Mr Wu. Or rather, to meet Eric, since he preferred to keep it casual. I can respect that.
Eric had a problem. He was a gwailo and he’d made a rookie gwailo move. Here in the FEZ, there’s no distinctions between gifts and bribes, and no business (business or “business” if you believe there’s a difference) gets done without appropriate gift exchanges. He had that right, but he’d made the mistake of giving four gifts to one Mr Xiao. If there’s one thing I remember from the Cultural Awareness Seminars Knight Errant ran for us back in Canton, it’s that four is bad juju in Chinese. Now, Eric had a flight to catch, but needed to top up his gifts, too. He’d put a call out to couriers and Aleph had tapped the five of us. Apparently. I still didn’t know where Aleph had come from or who my new associates were, but I knew we had a job to do and that’s good enough for this girl.

Of course, getting five runners and an important package around in a hurry presents an immediate logistical issue. Right here is where I should mention the troll in the room: Sailor Van. He’s a rigger. He’d come to the airport by van (not just a clever name) and could fit us all in together for a drive out to Kowloon. That’s right. Eric’s gift needed delivery to the Shichuan building in Kowloon; branch office of Eastern Tiger Corp. Null sweat. Why should I be worried about a visit to Eastern Tiger? Surely if they were coming gunning for me, they’d have done it in the last month. Yeah. Definitely that.

Gunhaver give me strength.

So, we had a job, and we had transport. What we didn’t have was a price and enough intel. Like Gunhaver says, running with only half the info is running blind, and the shadows are deep enough. I asked Eric what was in the box (What’s in the box!? No heads, far as I can tell. Wow, I haven’t watched that in an elf’s age. Due for another flatvid night) and he qualified it was a gift. Sounds simple enough. I could have pressed for more, but it’d have been poor form and the pretty breeder girl was giving me scowling side-eyes. Scowling side-eyes here being a clever euphemism for straight telling me not to ask what’s in the box. Sensing my cred was on the line with the woman and her exceptionally well contoured cheek bones, I let it go. The silence I made, she filled with a request for half the job’s pay up front. She called it standard. I like those standards. Eric didn’t know enough to argue (still not sure he knew we were runners) and authorised a transfer. A transfer to what? Did this cunning graduate of the Shadow Commando Cadettes (still got the badge around somewhere, and the trophy. Those kids had no hope of beating me on the obstacle course) with the pinkest hair in town just hand over her legit numbers to a Mr Johnson without a second thought? Omae of little faith, of course I didn’t.

I didn’t have to. Aleph had us covered with a shared escrow all set up and ready for the transfer. Sailor Van handed over those details and Eric made the down payment.

With our services paid for, we left Eric and hit the streets. Streets here being an unnecessary euphemism for the car park. I made a stop by the bike to grab my kit, then we loaded in and hit the road. Road here meaning the thing you drive on. No euphemisms this time.

While Sailor Van navigated (old school, no rigging, no pilot programs, just his hands on the wheel. Guess that officially makes him the… Wheelman) I suggested we introduce ourselves formal like. I’d barely said the words before Aleph dropped four names and comm IDs in my AR and filed them away into my contact list. Now, I didn’t spend much time around the Ares software development department, but I was pretty sure, at this point, that Aleph wasn’t standard issue for the Trode-band and it definitely wasn’t installed on my commlink when I woke up this morning. We’ve all heard stories about Technomancers, and it has long been my professional opinion that most of the stories are drek. Still, it’s enough to make a girl nervous.

But I couldn’t sweat that when I had a job to do. Mind on the run, commandos. Distractions are a Predator V to the head.

I’ve already mentioned Sailor Van and the impeccably dressed human woman, whose name is Stardust, as it happens. Don’t know why that sounds familiar. Also along for the ride was a vatjob in a suit going by Spook, and a decker named Panda. She’s an oni and I know as much about oni as I do about spam, which is to say a lot less than Panda. But her skin’s as pink as the hair on my head, and that’s got to count for something.

Just five runners running milk from one side of the FEZ to the other. Would have been null sweat had the traffic not stopped. Would have been very little sweat had the drivers not ditched their cars to bug out. Would have been manageable amounts of sweat had the reason for all this static not been a pack of peaceful protestors (peaceful protestors here being a cunning euphemism for anti-corp drekheads tearing up a noodle house and the local node with it.) While we could all agree that this wasn’t strictly our business, we could also agree that: A) if we didn’t get traffic moving, we’d have to cross Kowloon on foot and nobody wants that; B) Getting traffic moving meant moving along the protestors; C) Screwing with the node was a good way to ruin everybody’s day. You don’t need to be an eight-year veteran of urban tactical security to know that our best bet was hitting the protestors hard, fast and then corralling the locals back into their vehicles with a promise of situation normal. But since I am an eight-year veteran of urban tactical security… I forgot where I was going with that. Guess I just wanted to brag.

Anyway. We hit them hard, we hit them fast. Firebert and Reynald sung with such eloquence that before the protestors could figure out how hosed they were, three of them decided to lay down, share a cup of blood with the road, and rethink their rapidly ending lives. After Sailor Van caved in a skull with his fist, and the rest rushed back to the noodle bar to bunker down, calmly moved along with some arcane whispers courtesy of Stardust. We closed in, using the abandoned cars for cover, and lit them up. Firebert and Reynald kept singing their sweet song, but if anybody gets kudos for literally lighting the place up, it was Stardust and her balled lightning. Turns out she’s not so wiz with first impressions, but chummer knows how to make an impact.

All said and done, we’d fragged a gaggle of gangers and any we hadn’t fragged, bugged out, decker included. Old habits die hard, and I had my KE voice on and dished out orders without thinking. I sent Spook and Sailor Van back to grab our wheels, had Stardust do the sitch-norm announcement, and Panda and I checked out the node. We didn’t find a node, but we found a pile of drek resembling bricked node pieces. Nothing we could do, so we regrouped in the van just as a KE T-Bird came in to clean up. Sailor Van kept us under the radar and we moved on.

With a clean 15 minutes to spare (we got a bonus if we delivered by close of business), we arrived at the Shichuan building. I’d hoped the noodle incident would be enough trouble for one milk run, but a triad scuffle threatening to boil over into major static right by the Shichuan doors had the building in lockdown. Some kind of argument over which triad had rights on a young ork girl. We had no choice but to park and intervene.

So, we parked, and we intervened. Stardust began by enquiring as to the origin of the heated discourse the gangers were having. The gangers posited that she, “Fuck off, bitch.” Sailor Van suggested that they temporarily adjourn all squabbles and resume them some distance from the present location. The gangers countered with the notion, “Fuck off, trog.” Spook pulled his Roomsweeper (wonder if it has a name) and told them to make like a tree (wait for it…) and get out of there (definitely due for a flatvid night). The gangers seemed to like this idea most of all, and split. A quick call to the secretary later, and Stardust had the doors open. A quick chat with the secretary later, and a donation to the Secretaries Retirement Foundation, and we had our weapons checked, our package scanned and the elevator open. Mr Xiao welcomed us into his office with no shortage of confusion, but happily accepted the gift, and we were on our way.

Downstairs, back in the van, Stardust shot a message to Eric to tell him the job was done, and Eric shot the remaining creds to our escrow. It would have all been arctic had it not been for the gangers down the road pointing fingers and making general unhappy motions in our direction. None of us wanted to get caught in more triad biz, though, so we buckled in, Sailor Van jumped in, and we fed them heaping helpings of our dust. I wouldn’t have guessed it, but it turns out Sailor Van is also a Gunhaver and the Shadow Commandos fan. The stunt he pulled with the van, the alley wall and that broom handle under his seat, all while jumped in, is straight out of S08E11 (Drive Hangry, the one with Foxface’s funeral after she fakes her death because she thinks Admiral Flashfight might be a double agent working for Blue Laser Inc.) Uncanny.

It was exactly what we needed by way of an exit plan and the gangers never even made it within shooting range.

Sailor Van dropped us off back at the airport and we made our way home. I had my bike to grab, obviously, and Panda had left some cargo in a locker (I heard spam. I think the cargo was spam.) Back home, I stopped to see Rok and ask if he’d given my name to any other fixers, just in case Aleph was a friend of his. Nothing had come up, so I guess that’s a dead end. Still, a job’s a job and as long as the pay is good and there’s still honour among runners, Aleph can stay.

Oh, and I picked up some dodgy browning knock-offs and a faux HK 277 from the protestors. Mr Choi was only too happy to take them off my hands. Gentleman and a scholar, as always.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

We are one, but we are many

We live in an interesting time, don't we? The 21st Century is a time of rapid unending change. Most of this we can call progress and then shake hands and say "Aren't we doing well? Aren't we so much more enlightened than those who came before us?" Isn't that nice?

But a lot of it is just change. Is the wide availability of a smart phone progress? Sure, you can make that argument. Is the wide availability of the 8th generation of Samsung Smart Phones, now slightly larger, slightly more waterproof and slightly faster, progress? I guess by the strict definition it is, or is it just fashion? And does fashion progress or does it just change?

Regardless, I'm not interested in talking about smart phones. My point is that not all change is necessarily progress. Sometimes change is just change, not good, not bad, just different.

Media, publishing and distribution is changing. Everywhere around us, the main stream is embracing genre fiction and, in particular, sci-fi and fantasy are big money and broadly accepted by our culture. Comics aren't just for children, any more. And how about TV? There's a booming industry. For over a decade, seeminly trapped in a stasis of reality TV and talent shows, suddenly TV is high quality entertainment, telling stories that the big screen never could.

Is any of this progress? Does this better humanity? Probably not in any big way. Mostly it's just change, I think. But not the kind of change I want to talk about.

You know what I love? Robin Hoob: Men In Tights, the Mel Brooks Robin Hood parody film. Actually, I'm a big fan of parody, in general. Flying High? (Airplane, for you yanks) An amazing film. Weird Al? Can't get enough.

There was a glut of parody films for a while, movies like Meet The Spartans and the Scary Movie franchise. It seemed like we had a new one every six months. Alas, they all kind of sucked... A lot. Since then, it's been quiet on the parody front, hasn't it?

Or has it?

You know what else I love? YouTube. If you think the world of parody is quiet or dying, take a look at YouTube and rest assured parody is thriving. Parody music and parody films are in no short supply and they are as varied as the stars. Even Weird Al has lamented that, through the studio system, he cannot keep pace with parody artists on YouTube.

Change. That's what it is. That's what we're seeing in media.

I'm not a film maker or a musician, but I am a writer and the world of publishing is changing. The Internet has given new vigor to the community of independent publishers. More authors than ever are becoming their own publishers as well as writers, using the internet the distribute digital and print books in every genre and in every style. It's a change happening now and happening fast.

But that's still not what I want to talk about. We know the change is happening. Pointing at it like it's a new thing, now, is redundant. "Keep up, Carl. This is old news!"

No, I don't want to talk about writers and publishers and change and the internet and indies and traditional publishing houses and literary agents. At least, I don't want to talk about it on this basic level of mere acknowledgement.

I want to talk about people. Mostly I want to talk about writers, writers who often believe, rightly or wrongly, that they have the biggest stake in the game and that all this change has the biggest impact on them. If you're in the know, as it were, if you're part of the industry and community of writing and publishing, you may have noticed something odd, something a little weird, something that's actually kind of concerning.

I have.

I've noticed that some people, especially authors on either side of the taditional/indie line talk about all this change like it's a war or a bloody revolt, upheaving society at its foundations. Really? Is that how we want to view this change? Is that what this is? Are indies freedom fighters struggling to liberate books from oppressive gate keepers? Are the traditional publishers maintaining order and ensuring quality for the betterment of society, keeping back the wave of poor writing even in the face of a smear campaign by bitter rejected authors? Is this the change we're seeing?

I don't think so, and it concerns me that some people do. Don't get me wrong, there is change in the air. There's change in all facets of life here in the 21st century... But it's not a huge change. As it happens, there have always been authors who publish independently. Before there was Kindle, indie authors used personal websites, before the internet, authors sold their books by hand, paying for printing then carrying them about in boxes to local markets. The size of the pie for indie publishers has perhaps gotten bigger, but it's not like they had no pie before.

And what does this mean for the traditional houses? Well maybe it'll hit them in their back pocket, maybe it'll shrink their bottom line. Maybe it won't. Maybe the book market will struggle against the same external rivals it always has: Radio, cinema, television, sport. I don't have the data, I'm not an economist, and I'm not psychic.

But I'll still make a prediction.

I predict the big publishers and the small press are not going anywhere. I predict the ones that are big enough to weather the storm will survive and the ones who are flexible enough to bend with the wind will survive and the others? Well, they were probably always living on borrowed time. Sorry. Capitalism is a Darwinist bitch.

Things are changing, but probably not as much as you think. There also isn't a war over the soul of publishing and literature going on. Traditional and indie publishers have co-existed since the birth of the industry. As it happens, there is room for both, and both can even thrive.

Indie authors aren't the worst writers, rejected by every publishing house and literary agent on the planet, bringing about the death of literature as we know it with their storm of unedited, thinly veiled fan fiction. I should know, I'm a reasonably well reviewed indie author.

Publishing houses aren't run by fu manchu with the sole purpose of exploiting the struggling sensitive artists, squeezing every cent out of them that they can before tossing the scraps to wolves to make space for the next generation of suckers begging for validation. I should know, I've been traditionally published and I'll gladly go back for more.

The world just isn't that simple.

But one thing is for sure: Everybody, be they agent, editor, author, cover artist, marketer, or what-have-you, we're just trying to get books (in whatever shape they take) into the hands of readers. We'd really like to make some money from it, too. You know, so we can keep eating and being alive long enough to make another book.

And as soon as we smash capitalism, I'll be glad to give up the money part.

Until then, there's no war. We're all in this together and that means the very best road forward for us all is the one paved by cooperation and respect.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Why I Don't Write pt 1

I've said it before and I will continue to say it into the future.

Writer's block doesn't exist.

Writer's block is a myth, a lie, a comforting fabrication. We writers like to discuss writer's block as though it's a disease - it strikes anybody, amateur and professional alike, at any time, in any place and we seek cures for it. How can we overcome writer's block and start writing? Or perhaps we just have to wait it out, like the common cold, until we can start work again. Just hope we don't end up like those poor souls who suffer writer's block for months, even years, on end.

Except none of it's true. There is no writer's block. It is, at best, a shared delusion and, at worst, an excuse to be lazy.

But I've said all this before. So let's say something different.

I don't get writer's block but sometimes I stop writing for long periods of time. There's plenty of reasons and I'm going to talk about a few of them, starting with the least worthy of reasons.


Fun fact: I stopped watching TV for a long time. Around the time Nickelodeon stopped making surreal, creative and interesting cartoons like Invader Zim, The Angry Beavers, and Kablam (except for Spongebob. Spongebob is still going and is the bomb) and began making sit-coms about pre-teens, TV lost its appeal to me. The nice thing about watching movies is that they can be consumed in 3 hours, tops, and then you're free to do other things. Movies are enjoyable bite sized entertainment for a relaxing afternoon.

But then something unusual happened. DC Comics decided to change its business model. It launched the New 52 line of crap comics, began planning a whole shared cinematic universe of awful movies and focused all its effort and quality on TV shows. They began by taking my favourite super hero, The Green Arrow, and giving him a hot new TV series that is in every way amazeballs (amazeballs is the industry term.)

I suddenly had a very good reason to watch TV again and while one TV show might be only 40 minutes, unlike movies, they just keep making more and soon you're watching 14 hours just to get to the end of the story.

I don't think anyone is upset that TV suddenly became good again, this decade, and there's now dozens of high quality serial dramas around and whether you like fantasy, sci-fi, politics, history, there's something for everyone on the idiot box.

And services like Netflix make it easier than ever to watch it all at once. It's easy as pie to lose a whole day binging on your favourite TV show about really sad cute guys with daddy issues trying to save the world.

Writing is work. It's fun work and I enjoy it, but it's also work and it can be hard and you can spend all day writing something, look over and say "Well that was crap" and feel defeated and then you find out The Flash is almost as great as Arrow and now you need to catch up on that.

So sometimes I don't feel like writing, I don't even want to write, I just want to watch more Arrow. Then I might run out of Arrow, sit down to write and I can't focus on writing because at the back of my mind I'm still thrilling over the season finale and I know that Legends of Tomorrow is probably just as great and I should give that a chance, too.

And that can sure feel like writer's block. That can feel like I can't write when, really, I don't want to write, I want to watch move TV and, folks, there's a lot of TV to watch.

Kevin Smith called this Writer's Laze and his poison of choice was Dora The Explorer.

Fortunately, TV is a pretty easy addiction to break. Even if you're not interested in breaking it, even if you still want to watch every new season of Supernatural (and why wouldn't you?) it's generally pretty easy to get away from a TV.

Want to write without the temptation of great serial drama to pull you away? Take your writing tools of choice - laptop, pen and paper, stone and chisel - and go to a park, a library, a cafe and get to work. I've done a lot of writing, some of my best writing, at my local library where the wifi is so slow even checking is a pain and I'd rather write now and look up words later. It's not just an environment lacking easy distracting, it's an environment made for quiet work. It's also cheaper than a library.

I said that a crippling addiction to superhero TV shows is a poor reason not to write, but it's an honest reason. I have no doubt that many cases of Writer's Block are similarly a simple case of "I'd rather do this other fun thing today."

Not all of them, of course. There are far more sympathetic reasons writing might be difficult for you. They're still not this mystical unstoppable writer's block, but they are what we'll talk about next time...