Transmissions from the Quiet, Part Two: Distraction

So… it’s been about a week since I wrote Part One of this series. That one, if you missed it… is pretty much required reading for understanding this one. Part Two will take that same subject in a new direction, addressing something that I found to help me through the struggles and how that little distraction has become something new entirely.

BUT… this is not the same kind of post. Part One was a chance to examine what’s gone wrong in my brain… and it helped me, a great deal, to sort it out into words. Since so many people read it and responded, I did want to carve out a moment here to give a bit of an update.

Addendum to Part One

I’m feeling better most of the time. The days over the last week or so have been a mixed bag, with some feeling fairly stable and calm, others featuring returns to the heart-pounding, brain-drowning sensations. Sleep has been a little easier to come by, with only two major nighttime implosions. But… I go back to work tomorrow, so… of course, today has been the worst day in the last few. The transition back to routine and ritual may, in fact, be exactly what I need… but at the moment it comes cloaked in dread.

I would be remiss–and mostly a jerk–if I did not mention the EXTRAORDINARY kindness of so many of my friends, family, and colleagues. Every message, text, reply, or comment was received and valued, even if I was too far into my own head to write you a thoughtful response. I have never doubted that I am fortunate to have an amazing tribe in my corner… and though distance and safety have taken you from my proximity, you have made it clear that you should never be far from my heart.

I have doctor stuff coming up later this week. We’ll see what comes from that. Other supports are under investigation. It’s all moving very slowly… because moving any faster scares the crap out of me.

OK. Let’s shift gears and talk about something that has a bit of an upbeat energy to it, shall we? Still serious. Still important. But… different.

Distract, Obsess, Annoy

You may or may not know this, but I have a *highly* obsessive personality. I’m not carrying any proper OCD or anything like that, but I get very, very attached to things (people, universes, ideas, whatever). This has been going on for as long as I can remember, but was especially prevalent in what we could colloquially refer to as my personal Dark Ages (Summer 1998 through Summer 2000). That was when I was deep in the process, and trauma, of coming out… first relationships… broken hearts… failed friendships… all of it. Those two years were the loneliest years of my life, coming after high school ended but before I settled into who I was going to actually be as a college student and adult.

During that time, my fixations took on a larger than life significance–the comic book The New Warriors led to me making friends and family out of an internet mailing list, for instance, and soon consumed hours and hours of every single day of my life. I took solace in fiction especially (this is no surprise, I am sure), and it became my security blanket. Whether it was comics or novels or TV shows or movies (Did anyone REALLY need to go see the first X-Men movie 11 times in the theater while unemployed in the summer of 2000? NO THEY DID NOT. Yet I did), there was always someplace else to be.

Escapism is VERY important to me. My passion for games, especially tabletop RPGs, is rooted in that same need.

You see… it wasn’t until much, much later in my life when I started to envision my life as a place I wanted to be. Too often before, for vast stretches of time, I needed to believe in those better worlds… because the world in which I found myself on a daily basis was not always a kind place. For instance…

The first day I showed up to teach in my school district, as a student teacher, I was told by my well-meaning and kind-hearted cooperating teacher that I needed to under no circumstances let anyone else in the building know that I was gay.

The first year that I worked at one of our high schools where I taught reading–for the entire first year–I was asked on a regular basis by colleagues who I was subbing for. I… had worked there all year, and yet they couldn’t even remember that they had seen me before.

The first time Tom and I ever went to dinner together on Valentine’s Day, the restaurant sat us in the exact center of the dining room, while all of the other couples were seated around the outside edge. Staring at us.

Three little examples of what I mean… not that life was massively unfair to me or any such thing. Just… ways in which I found the universe in which I lived to be… short. Unworthy. So escapism kept playing a key part in my life.

In recent years… things have gotten so much better. I’m completely out at work–I never even consider the possibility that someone might *not* know about me. I interact on a regular basis with hundreds of people who know who I am, and I never feel like I don’t belong in the work of my school district. Tom and I are a singular unit that never feels unwelcome or out of place at the wonderful restaurants we frequent… even if these days that’s all curbside and carry out.

So my affection for escapism had become less… urgent. Less vital. I was reading less, and even watching less TV right before the pandemic hit. As the decision to stay at home 24-7 came to pass, I brought those hobbies back as sanity measures and as things to do to help pass the time that would have otherwise been spent out shopping, or playing games at other peoples’ houses, or just driving places.

Man, I miss driving places.

Anyway.

Escapism started to regain some appeal, at first as a way to stay busy… but as the months ticked by, it started to become more urgent and vital again.

I resumed the world’s slowest chronological/release-order rewatch of the Star Trek franchise. After years of slowly rolling through TOS and TAS and TNG, I watched all of DS9 and am barreling through Voyager at practically warp speeds. They don’t really do all that much for me, but… they give me a way to just sort of unhook my brain and be somewhere else. That’s nice.

I returned to Farscape and watched the whole thing–that show is very important to me, very affecting, and it stirred some serious energy in my brain and my heart… but it was all wrapped up in November… and I needed something else that I was a little more invested in. That brings us to the Distraction… the Obsession… the Annoyance that maybe, sort of, kind of, saved my life.

The Main Reason We’re Here

In September, we watched the Emmys. They were *so bad*. Virtual awards shows are a disaster and should be stopped. But the one thing that was not bad was getting to hear the lovely speeches from the cast and crew of a little show called Schitt’s Creek.

Now, many of you are probably old hands in the Schitt’s Creek game–early adopters. I… don’t do early adoption. I do STUPIDLY EARLY ADOPTION (where I know about it before it ever takes off–like with Love, Simon) or I do AFTER THE FACT ADOPTION (where I wait til you all stop talking about something before I bother to try it–like with Game of Thrones and Walking Dead). I just… don’t like to feel like I jumped on a bandwagon, I guess. So I had heard many people talk, and many internet people rave, about the show… but I filed it away as something to deal with later… after the world moved on.

But listening to the speeches of the cast and crew–especially Dan Levy–and their messages of what the show stood for… something clicked for me. Something crawled in my brain and said, “This. This. This.”

I told Tom that I wanted to watch it, and I thought it would be a good thing for us to watch together. He relented–he’s a sucker for award-winners just like I am–and we started a nice, casual watch in October or so. We watched an episode or two a week, sometimes as many as 4 in a week, and…

And honestly? I didn’t really feel it. The first season is stiff… but I have lived through stiff first seasons before (my favorite show of all time is Babylon 5, so… yeah) and we stuck with it. We marched through season 2 at the same pace (so it was something like late November when that wrapped up) and found it improving, but still not setting my world on fire.

Season 3 is much stronger. The show starts to BE what it wants to BE (instead of just the setup for what it wants to be) in Season 3. As we move forward here, I will try to limit spoilers, but… *shrug*

My mental problems first manifested as an inability to sleep because of awful, awful shadows in my brain. Whenever I would settle in to sleep, my brain would conduct a sort of horror audit of my failings and my failures and play those out in agonizing detail. Those first few nights of this phenomenon were some of the scariest nights of my life… not because of the vividness of my imagination so much as of how easily those nights tore away my sense of self. I didn’t know what I was going to do.

About five days into that hellscape, we watched the season 3 finale of Schitt’s Creek. If you have seen the show but don’t remember details, it’s the episode “Grad Night” and the ending of the episode involves a car ride after dinner.

Without giving too much away, I will say that Patrick Brewer (a character on the show who has a significant moment in that episode) saved my life. Or at least my brain.

Like a drowning person thrown a life preserver, I grabbed on to that character, and the show in general from that point on, HARD. I had found a distraction that would occupy enough of my mind that I could drown out the ugly stuff. I still stayed up all night… but I was watching YouTube clips of scenes and interviews and analysis and such… I was wallowing in a genuine kindness, affection, love, and acceptance that this show unspooled in steady, comedic spoonfuls episode after episode for its entire back half. I devoured the final three seasons, forcing Tom to adopt a watching rhythm that he despises (full-on binges of whole seasons at a time) because I was so scared that my 4+ hours of YouTube every night was going to eventually spoil something for myself.

You should have seen how careful I was to not ruin things… how many interviews I watched only until I caught the wiff of a reference to an episode we had not yet watched, before I nearly jammed my finger tapping the pause button on my ipad. I knew there were scared milestones that I dare not spoil… Open Mic, Olive Branch, Meet the Parents, The Hike, etc. I needed them. I needed to see them, to feel them, to let that world and those moments wash over me.

But then… we got to the end. It was my fault we got there so fast, of course… I ruined it by making us rush. The ending of the show is pretty much perfect, and I have no complaints. Other than, you know… it ended.

It was all over. There was no more. Nothing more new. I had seen everything the internet had to offer (even that amazing post-Season 6 graduation Zoom call video. Oh my gosh.) and… it was done. Early adopters had had six years to get ready for the end. Or three-ish years if, like me, you only really invested in the Patrick era. I… had only a matter of days.

I had found this new security blanket that had kept me warm and safe, and now it was torn back away from me. (Again, I know it’s my fault. But it was still a strange kind of trauma.)

We actually watched the last season on the day AFTER my breakdown. That was what we spent all day doing… indulging me in bundling up my heart with laughs and tears as I watched Patrick and David navigating the most wonderful life I could imagine. A life where people just cared, innately, for one another. Where they grow past their flaws. I smile and cry (mostly happy tears) just thinking about it.

I mentioned in Part One that there was this idea of “Hyper-Capable” that really resonated with me. When Dan Levy, one of the stars and creators of the show, won a GLAAD award in 2019, the cast introduced him, and their own characters, at the ceremony. Patrick Brewer is played by an awesome human named Noah Reid, and Noah introduced Patrick on that stage as “David’s hyper-capable boyfriend.”

I liked that idea. I, in fact, like everything about Patrick. I like that he just… makes everything OK. He always figures it out. He keeps David level. He makes David better. He finds contentment and joy in being the take-charge guy, the one who, in spite of being new to everything in his life, always finds the right way to say, or show, the people he loves how much he loves them. I want to be that guy so bad that it hurts.

I kind of want to marry him too, but only in an alternate universe where I never met Tom. I’m not a crazy person. Besides… the best thing about Patrick is how he makes David feel and grow.

The show started as a distraction. It became an obsession. To those of you in my closest orbit (Tom, especially) it’s become an annoyance (as in, JEREMY STOP TALKING ABOUT IT)… but it was also my life preserver.

It still is. I’ll be rewatching it… for a long time, I think. Like Love, Simon before it, it brings an energy into my universe that I never knew I needed until I saw it, felt it, breathed it… and suddenly felt the absence that predated it.

In the nights that have come since the finale… and the nights that I know will still come, as we work to figure out how to best treat my issues and mend my wounds, I’ll cue up a parade of Patrick and David clips and just… feel love that exists without reservation in a world where people want one another to be happy.

That’s the one prescription I’ve written for myself in this process, and even when it gets to be more obsession than distraction (for example, the actor who plays Patrick has two albums of music. I bought them. I am listening to them right now. They make me happy)… even when it gets to be more annoyance than obsession (apologies to the handful of people who I have decided to only communicate with via a series of adorable Schitt’s Creek GIFs)…

Fiction can heal us. All of us. Us as in the whole damned world.

I know that it can heal me. Or, at the very least, play a part in that healing.

So… let me have my distractions, my obsessions, and my annoyances. And I promise to always, ALWAYS, let you have yours.

And… if you ever need a reason to strike up a conversation with me, watch some Schitt’s Creek and tell me you want to talk about it. It’s the world’s most perfect bait for catching a Jeremy-fish right now. 🙂

Only one more of these to come. Part Three is all about… well… Responsibility.

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Transmissions From The Quiet, Part One: OK

I am not OK.

This is, I suppose, not an uncommon sentiment. It’s 2020, after all. Global pandemic day 284 by my Des Moines count. 

But here’s the thing… I’m always OK. I wake up every day and I make a choice to be OK. For nearly 300 days, I have made that choice. I have been OK for myself, but more importantly I have been OK for all the people that depend on me. For my husband, for my friends, for my family—for relative strangers that I support at work. I get up and I make a withdrawal from this psychological bank account that I have been steadily depositing into for… well, for decades. Ever since I found my inner extrovert and discovered the way that being with people feeds my soul. I’ve lived a life that, while not without strife, has been largely sheltered from a lot of trauma in recent years.

In fact, my relationship with trauma is so well insulated that you probably know about every single one of my traumas. They are few, and I process them at length and in public as one more facet of the way that I derive this “psychological bank account” — something that I will refer to as Cope for the rest of this post. I have a *lot* of Cope. My willpower for MAKING MYSELF OK is… well, I would have told you that it was inexhaustible.

That doesn’t mean that I was never frayed or wounded or over-extended. Most of you have seen me be all of those things. It just means that it was never so bad that, with a little time and a little perspective, I couldn’t draw on my Cope and just BE OK.

I know that this is sort of a superpower. That for so many people, it doesn’t work that way. Most people can’t just rile themselves up, blow off some steam, and then just set their brokeness aside. It makes me a REALLY bad advice-giver when it comes to mental health stuff… I am a decent listener, but when I try to ADVISE, I… I lack frame of reference. Because I just draw on the Cope and MAKE MYSELF BETTER. And I confess to sometimes being confused as to why other people don’t do that themselves.

But you see… I am stupid.

There are limits. That supply of Cope… it… 

It is *exactly* like a bank account. No matter how hard you try, sometimes you can spend your bank account to zero. Worse… the very very worst… is that sometimes, when you lose track of things, you can overdraw that account.

Then? Then you realize that you are kind of fucked.

School is hard. My job is… a rollercoaster of reaction and adaptation and support and empathy and most of the time I love it, but it has been a different kind of demanding in this moment. Delivering professional development (and for that matter, all forms of teaching) without the direct back-and-forth interactions with other human beings is HARD. It is EXHAUSTING. It is DEMORALIZING. But I wake up every day and I draw on my Cope and I make myself OK.

Life is hard. I miss my friends. I miss casual conversations. I miss face to face conversations. I miss hugs. I miss the way that some people reach out and touch you on the knee or the elbow when things get heavy in a conversation. I miss sitting beside people instead of across from them. I miss privacy. I miss spontaneous connections. I miss fancy happy hours. I miss playing board games and roleplaying games and the satisfying clatter of dice on a table or the awkwardness of my inability to shuffle cards. All of these things—every bloody one of them—used to put deposits in the account. But now? I try to do as much of them as possible, to simulate these experiences so that the connections remain so that someday, when I can do all these things in person again, I will still have my people. That they won’t forget about me. So I wake up every day and I draw on my Cope and I make myself OK with simulations and half-measures. 

Family is hard. I have missed so much of the young lives of my nephews and nieces over the past year. I have a niece who is hardly even recognizable when comparing the little person she is today in videos to the baby I last played with at the tail end of 2019. I have two nephews who have basically become young adults while I’ve been locked up in my house. That isn’t to say that the loss of time with parents, brothers, sisters-in-law and others are not hard as well, but the kids… I have always been close to the kids. And before much longer, they won’t even hardly remember me. So I wake up every day and I draw on my Cope and I make myself OK with the absence and the distance.

About two weeks ago I stopped sleeping properly. If you know me, you know that I can sleep on demand. I can sleep through ANYTHING. But that just stopped. My brain wouldn’t slow down, and I would spin and spiral from one worry or tension to another like some sort of manic ballerina. It got really dark for a while—the first week, my most frequent obsessive fury during the hours from 11 to 3 (I could usually collapse to utter exhaustion by 3) was… bad. Bad in a way that I have rarely allowed space in my brain since the darkest of days in 1998 and 1999. But I found a cheat—a way to distract myself while exhausting myself, and in the process push those really dark thoughts out. That… that’s coming up in Part Two.

Anyway. So obviously, things were NOT RIGHT. But I just thought… stuff happens. It will pass. I woke up each morning (usually on a luxurious 3 hours of sleep) and I willed myself to be OK. More Cope spent. 

And then came Christmas. I have never had a Christmas Eve away from family… and only one (ONE!) in 41 years that wasn’t spent with *my* family. I knew it was going to be hard. So I woke up Christmas Eve—a day that has historically been a bigger deal even than Christmas for my side of the family—and I drew on my Cope to make myself OK with being away. But I didn’t realize that when I did that…

I emptied the account. The pandemic finally won… and those daily withdrawals, in a world where virtually nothing makes deposits because of my alarming extroversion, had eaten away at the balance that I had spent my entire adult life accumulating.

It was all gone. And I didn’t even realize it. I mean… I felt my feelings differently that night. But… I’m a pretty emotional person anyway, so that was no big deal, I thought.

I thought that was it. Like I said… usually, I just have to rile myself up, marinate in my feelings for a bit, and that gives me the last little nudge I need to square things up again. I stayed up til 3, collapsed in total exhaustion, woke up the next morning to be part of our little, personal Christmas… and I did what I always do. I dipped in to the Cope and I took out what I needed to make myself be OK.

And, just like back in the day when I was writing checks… I didn’t even know that I’d withdrawn funds that DID NOT EXIST. The overdraft notice was, metaphorically, in the mail.

At about 9pm Christmas evening, the bill came due. 

I broke. One minute, everything was fine and I was just sitting on the couch. The next minute, I was drowning in my head. My chest was pounding. When Tom asked me what was wrong, all I could do was stutter out half words—I couldn’t even make whole words, let alone coherent sentences. My chest HURT. My brain was running at ten thousand miles a minute in a hundred directions. I know I scared him. I was scared too. We… we went to bed.

DO NOT LOOK AT ME THAT WAY. Yes… we probably should have gone to the hospital. But… I couldn’t. I couldn’t even find the focus and the drive to care about myself *that much*. I just wanted to go to sleep and wake up in the morning and draw on Cope that did not exist to make myself BE OK.

I did sleep this time. My body just sort of… shut off.

I woke up early. Bawling.

Against my natural instincts, I told Tom what was happening. I try to shelter him from this—I don’t want to ever drop my weight in other people’s laps. I want to be helpful… I don’t want to require help. But, in a supremely rare burst of insight, I realized that I couldn’t do it by myself. Tom is the human being I have best empowered to help me through the worst of all things… and I had managed to convince myself I was doing him a favor by keeping him out of my head for *months*. Or worse. Maybe years.

You see, when I woke with a start that morning, tears rolling down my face and that same strange tightness gripping my chest that had driven me to bed the night before… I knew that I couldn’t make myself be OK anymore. The account where I stored my Cope had been so badly overdrawn that the whole damn thing was gone. The First National Bank of My Psyche had closed my account.

I was not OK. And no matter how much I wanted to be OK, I wasn’t going to be OK again. Not soon. Not fast. Not easily.
And there was a part of me that did not want to be OK. That part that waits for me to go to bed and then starts beating its drum about the countless ways that I have failed. The countless people I have failed. The countless ways in which I will never be enough.

Tom was so good. He listened to me, without judgment, as I explained the countless things that have been wearing me to pieces over the last nearly 10 months. I unbottled everything… I cried and I explained and I didn’t worry that what I was saying would hurt his feelings—because let me tell you, this is a worry that has crushed me for so very long. How can my need for MORE not signal some sort of judgment of INSUFFICIENCY upon him? I mean… it doesn’t. But I just always feel like that is how it will be taken.

Dammit, it’s how I would take it, if someone that I thought I was enough for came to me and told me that I was wrong.

But he was… my hero. He just listened and laid there with me and…

And we started into the weekend after Christmas in very uncharted territory for either of us.

I am the caregiver. I am the one who makes everything OK. I am, to borrow a phrase from something I will talk about in Part 2, “hyper-capable” — that doesn’t mean perfect, but… that’s my job in my life. Oftentimes… I just GET THE THING DONE. I figure it out. I make it work. I take care of it.

But now, I couldn’t.

I laid on the couch with him all day, basically. He indulged me in devoting a whole freaking day to the things I had found that would distract me enough to make me stop crying for a little while. To quiet my breathing. To lessen the aching tightness in my chest that refused to subside.

And in spite of all that… sleep did not come Saturday night. An hour here, an hour there. Waking after each of those hours drenched with sweat and tears and a malignant sense of dread that things would never, ever be better.

Sunday… was the same. We essentially did THE EXACT SAME DAY OVER AGAIN. And… we made the daylight hours bearable. But still my chest hurt. Still my brain was… somehow both MASSIVELY DISINTERESTED IN EVERYTHING and completely fixated on everything. It wasn’t til midday on Sunday that I realized I hadn’t eaten anything of substance since Christmas night. I just… did not care about food.

So… by now, some of you with a better handle on your own mental health have probably started ticking off some stuff on some symptom checklists. I know. Intellectually, I know about these things. But experientially… I have MANAGED VIA COPE through every one of my mental health crises in my entire life. ALL OF THEM. Even the worst. Even when people wiser and more caring than me told me I needed to get help. Nope. Not me. I’m ME. I’m a farm kid. I’m a white dude. I’m an Iowan. Whatever my excuses. Just like I can’t make myself wear sunscreen, I couldn’t make myself talk to someone about getting help.

I’m the hyper-capable one, dammit. I should be self-sufficient.

I mean, we all know that I am not, but… that’s what the voice in my head tells me. When it counts, I should just be able to do for myself.

After another night without sleep, and a consultation with a medically-astute friend, we decided I needed to go to the doctor Monday morning. The chest pain had not gone away yet, and my family history has more than its fair share of complications with hearts.

Cut to spending 8 hours in the hospital Monday as we ran tests to ensure that I was not having some kind of cardiac event. Or some kind of gastrointestinal event.

I came home with answers to what was NOT happening. And… that meant that I DID know what was happening. I’d known it all along.

I am not OK.

I don’t know what tomorrow looks like. A week from today is unthinkable. My general stability from minute to minute is… tenuous today. But it’s more dependable than it was yesterday. That’s gotta count for something, right?

My chest hurts less today. Like… naming the thing seems to have robbed it of some of its power. Writing this helps. Talking to people helps. I have talked to some of you… and I have avoided others. There is no judgment in that discrimination, I assure you. I just… don’t have the Cope to handle everything. 

Heh. I said I named it there, didn’t I? But I… haven’t.

I’m pretty sure this is Depression. At first I wanted it to be Anxiety—I convinced myself that anxiety was, I dunno… somehow more temporary. Something that would wrap itself up and move on and not require so very much effort to manage. I know that’s bullshit, by the way—that’s just what my half-functional brain settled on at first. But this isn’t that. Or it is, but it isn’t ONLY that.

I need to spend more time with doctors. It’s happening.

But as we all know, one of the things that I do to heal myself is to write. And right now… I can’t do fiction. It’s a monumental effort of will to just do this stream-of-consciousness blog stuff. But… it helps.

This is Part 1 of 3 blog posts… but only Step 1 of a potentially unlimited number of days that I have to spend in re-learning how to take care of myself.

And this is me, in typical me fashion, making a HUGE ASS DEAL out of something that I know a VAST number of my friends have dealt with their whole lives. And I’d probably be a whole lot healthier if I had dealt with mine back in the beginning instead of waiting 20+ years for an unimaginable stretch of pandemic days to come along and bulldoze every trick I have ever learned about how to make myself OK.

I think of all the energy I have spent in my life to be able to actively ignore my problem instead of getting help for it, and… dammit, I weep.

Maybe I need medicine. Maybe I need therapy. Maybe I need both. Maybe I need neither. We’ll figure it out. One thing I know I need… and God, do I know it more right now than ever before… is people. Is you. Is proximity and conspiracy and foolishness and all of it. But I know that none of that matters if I don’t figure out how to handle the times when I’m all alone in my head, too.

I am not OK.

And I’m going to have to be OK with that.

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Game School

As part of PendraCon, the week-long virtual convention celebration of storytelling that am running, I decided to resurrect an idea prompted by a conversation with a good friend and frequent gaming collaborator about how I run roleplaying games.

PREFACE

I love RPGs. I’ve been playing them for the vast majority of my life, with particularly notable runs of the following games forming the basic foundation of my experiences…

  • Earthdawn
  • Shadowrun
  • Mage: the Ascension
  • Changeling: the Dreaming
  • Brave New World
  • Deadlands
  • Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game
  • Adventure!

And a few other games well-read but not properly played yet for a host of reasons…

  • Wraith: the Oblivion
  • Nobilis
  • Marvel Superheroes Adventure Game
  • Trinity
  • Aberrant
  • Dragonlance: The Fifth Age
  • Cortex Prime (system)
  • Genesys (system)

So you will notice a distinct lack of D&D or anything D20 on that list. I am familiar with those games and know how they work… I just also know that they don’t always work well for me.

That isn’t to say that the advice that follows is not applicable to other games… but it does help to contextualize five Golden Rules of Gaming that I live by… and that have surely influenced my style of storytelling, plotting, and game arbitrating.

FIVE GOLDEN RULES

  1. Words are better than dice rolls.
  2. One combat per night.
  3. If you name it, it matters.
  4. Everything is connected.
  5. Flourish makes memories.

We’ll explore each of those a little more as we go along, but first… here’s the slightly abridged electronic conversation that prompted this post in the first place. See if you can feel the insidious nature of my golden rules anywhere in this dialogue…

REAL TALK

Q: I’m looking to pick yer brain on how you arrange/prep for a game, do you outline?

ME: I LOVE THIS QUESTION. Because I honestly never stop and like… process what I do. So answering this for you gives me a chance to sort out what I do!

So… Outlining? Absolutely. In a couple of phases.

Phase 1 is the Hardware Store. I go through the game and basically make a list of all the things I love about it (sometimes mechanically, but mostly story-wise). Once I have that inventory of ideas, I have to decide if this is a Kitchen Sink game (then I need an outline that will let me use ALL the pieces) or if it is a more tightly focused game… where I just pick the bits that align to a pattern or theme that I am feeling good about.

Then Phase 2 is outlining the arc. That’s where this Act I/Act II/Act III nonsense of mine comes in.

If it’s a game that people playing already know, Act I is usually about getting to know the characters… and teasing the plot elements that I want to get to. But there’s not typically any MAJOR plot movement in Act I… it ends with a small but significant moment where the group makes the decision to start dealing with the plot after we’ve all got a handle on their separate strands. This is how our last Mage game went, and to a lesser extent the previous Earthdawn campaign.

If the game is newer to the players, then I usually use Act I to tell a sort of archetypal story of the game–like, what is the perfect example (or several perfect examples) of how this game works and what its themes are. That’s how we started Shadowrun. And it’s kind of what I am going for in Wraith. [Editorial Note: This conversation happened before COVID-19 totally torpedoed a sweet Wraith campaign we were about to start…]

Oh, Brave New World was that way too.

But then, once you have the sort of mechanical/foundational nature of Act I figured out… that’s when the rest gets a lot more fun.

Act 2 (and any other Acts that are not the FINAL Act) just need a theme and a predetermined end point. I like each Act to end with a significant change to the status quo, and I pick those out based on what stuff from the list of story elements I wanted to include seems most intriguing or splashiest.

This is where I am a shitty GM though: I pretty much do anything and everything in my power to make my Act endings happen regardless of player input. Players determine HOW we get there, and how we respond to it… but the event itself is GOING to happen. Some of the best games we have ever had are when the players have written me into a bitch of a corner though, and I have to add stuff to the game, or twist, or reveal, just to get my ball back in play.

Then the Final Act is pretty much 80% tying up the loose ends that seem important to the players and 20% getting in whatever events or elements capstone the themes of the game. It feels weird, but my big elaborate endings are only about 1/5th figured out when the game starts… everything else cool that happens in final act stories comes from player reactions and interactions to all of the stuff I found cool enough in the setting to include in the game.

[Longest answer to a yes/no question ever? MAYBE!]

Q: You’re tellin’ me what I need to know tho!

Me: That’s my basic process! Happy to fill in any other blanks.

Q: So then scoping down a little to a game-by-game basis, do you just kinda have a hit list per game of, “This is what’s gotta happen?”

Me: Essentially. My session outlines are usually a list of five events, and one of them is a single Must Happen thing (usually the fourth or fifth event on the list, but not always).

These can be less railroady though, because the neat thing about sessions is that things can happen simultaneously… so maybe the players go in a different direction as a result of the third event… and the fifth event just HAPPENS without them. Like, now it’s in the background, and I can bring it back in, in its new state, later.

It is VERY difficult to meaningfully plan for “Player character must do X” types of events, because players are notoriously shifty!

Those tend to get assigned to an Act rather than a session… then I have room to try and make it happen. So, if I need someone to use the cursed magic sword… I almost never count on that happening in Session 14. But sometime in Act III? I can make that shit happen just by paying attention to characters’ (and players’) styles.

And that’s actually why sessions-per-act are always a guessing game. I often say “Oooh, 8 sessions in this Act,” but then sometimes it is 6 or 10 or whatever… I tend to just let that flow naturally.

Sorry, I keep shifting to big picture planning. I am not a good small picture planner! Seriously, when I planned a session of Brave New World, where I knew one fight per night was all we could handle, it would look something like this:

Sample Session Outline (seriously)

1) Truth brings an update
2) The Federal Response
3) Casing the joint
4) FIGHT: Ratmaster with Bombs
5) DISCOVERY: Three generators have to go

… and if everyone is lucky and I am at my best, I have stats for the fight and names for the NPCs beforehand. 🙂

Q: Yeah that’s a tricky one for me right now

Me: The trick to session outlining for me is to be crazy flexible, which comes with practice and experience, I suppose. My session outlines always end up as a map of story beats… because then people can respond to them in ways that feel meaningful and have an impact on the story. Like when the players concocted a plan to put the CEO in a duffel bag and abduct him from his house to get them into the skyscraper? I DID NOT FORESEE THIS. But we rolled with it, and the basic beats of the story were still able to unfold because I hadn’t sketched them out in anything more than the minimum detail needed.

Q: I’m really trying to get a handle on prep time. Getting ready for a session seems to take forever.

Me: One thing that helps me is to invest heavily in stat blocking like 10 characters, and then just ensuring they recur often so I can re-use those stats.

Beyond that… I get really comfortable with the game’s base difficulty mechanics so that I can rattle off three things in a hurry: The difficulty of an easy thing, an average thing, and a hard thing. That way, even when we are way off of the outline, I can keep it feeling like it was in my plan all along.

I have made an art form out of planning arcs/Acts before the campaign starts and then planning sessions 10 minutes before people show up. It is EXACTLY the wrong way according to every GMing chapter in the history of the hobby, I think.

But I also struggle to rationalize the mentality that the GM should be spending hours prepping for the game. Maybe in a world where the players are also spending time prepping for the game, but that’s not often the reality for most people. So, I say… minimize. Improvise. Sympathize.

And take better notes than I do. Jeeeezus, take better notes than I do. That sweet Final Act moment where all of the threads come together to make the themes of the game crystal clear, or the epic twist that no one saw coming takes everyone off guard and yet still makes perfect sense… those things only happen if you actually remember all of the balls you threw up in the air in the previous Acts… so NOTES. NOTES. NOTES.

A thing I need to invest in is a routine at session end where I write down things that mattered. They don’t have to be pretty–they just have to be captured. This is part of the growing I still have to do in this hobby.

Q: Is this method of planning similar to how you would approach, say, worldbuilding/lore for your novels?

Me: Exactly. There’s very little difference, except that where I would research from the handbooks and sourcebooks for a game, I have to invent for a novel.

But they take the same basic amount of time. I have to figure out how the world works, who the major players are, the basic shape of it, any quirks of language or culture, and what specific stuff I want to DO there or have happen there—similar to the Toolbox phase of game planning.

But unlike some more successful people… I basically ONLY figure out what I know I need. That leaves room open to invent stuff on the spot when needed (which is only a problem when I take shitty notes. See above. Sigh.)

Q: Oooo, can I make a suggestion for Game School?

Me: Sure! I’ll include them as Q’s Golden Rules, so as not to confused people with mine J

Q: Things I learned from running LARP, especially from running combat-heavy LARPs like Werewolf:

Q’s Golden Rules

1) Trust nothing not to die.  I have introduced plotlines and wiped their ashes off a seat 30 minutes later.
2) High-intensity/high-emotion stories with epic combats cannot be fudged.  If you fudge to make sure a player lives or dies, they will know it, even if it’s not a conscious knowledge.  Let all the numbers roll.
3) When in doubt, “this sounds like more fun” is the right answer.
4) (Added from the comments!) Just because it is filled with odd pieces and weird “extras” does not make it a good game. I have been bitten in the behind by “Oh look at what a cool new idea we came up with for our mechanics” and discovered “This easily lost small piece of wood dictates whether or not you have a complete set, Mr. Collector. How ’bout that?”

Me: I love those—especially the third one. Excellent advice!

[Editorial Note: Q is an awesome guy. If you want to learn more about his excellent taste in games and gaming, you could hit him up at his Twitch channel: https://www.twitch.tv/vaydyn]

About Those Golden Rules…

The conversation above covers my approach to planning pretty well, but storytelling in RPGs is a combination of planning the game and RUNNING the game. That’s where my Golden Rules (and Q’s, too!) come into play. I’ll unpack each of my five, and then add one more notion for good measure before we put this topic to rest for the night…

1. Words are better than dice rolls.

Games have rules for a reason, and I am not here to convince you to abandon them. But whenever it is possible to roleplay a solution to a problem instead of roll dice to resolve a problem, I try to lean into the roleplaying solution. Dice provide quick resolution when you need it, but for me the fun of an RPG is pretending to be your character and then throwing down in verbal exchanges with neat NPCs. My job as the gamemaster is to make cool NPCs for you to talk to, argue with, steal from, or quiver in fear before. Your job is to rise to the challenge of playing that encounter instead of just rolling a handful of dice to see if you get the better of the character in the encounter.

2. One combat per night.

Due to jobs, schedules, and logistics, a session of roleplaying in my group tends to be about 2.5 hours long. In almost any game system we have every played, a combat of any consequence takes the better part of an hour or more. That means that I know we will only really ever have one combat per night. That means that I need to make sure that the single combat we have is engaging enough that players and characters that live for fighting feel fulfilled… and it means I need to make sure there are ways to avoid or handwave other fights that might pop up during the session.

And yes, I will handwave a fight without hesitation. We play larger than life characters in our games, and if I have a choice between running a fight between the player characters and some henchmen at the gate or the player characters and the big bad in his lair, I will ALWAYS choose the more exciting fight… unless we are stalling for time so that the big bad’s fiendish scheme can come to pass, of course.

3. If you name it, it matters.

I hate naming background characters–the name of the innkeeper is not important. But if the players insist on a name for a character, I make it a point to give that character something more to do in the story. This is also why I work so hard to help villains escape from the heroes periodically–I want them to come back. Characters that recur, grow and contribute to the plot or the themes provide an essential degree of continuity and verisimilitude to a game… but if we are definitely never going to see see Innkeeper X again, I will do my damnedest not to name him. Or his inn. Stop asking me to name things, dangit.

4. Everything is connected.

This is going to get me into trouble with purists out there, but I think we have already established that I sort of do things my own way. I LOVE CROSSOVERS. I love easter eggs that show you strange connective material, even if it can’t logically be connected. I take a but of inspiration from the way Ryan Murphy uses the same actors over and over in his TV shows, or the way that Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series connected numerous novels that never seemed to be want to be connected. The most common way this connective material shows up for me is that I have a set of 8 NPC templates, archetypes if you will, that I fall back on when I need to develop new notable characters in a game. It is a trick not unlike how some players work really hard to play variations on the same three or four base characters, no matter the game. It provides me the chance to get GOOD at a characterization and to cheat to borrow gravitas and dread from past experience. When you are running the game, you sometimes have to manage and track scores of characters (I’ve run Mage games with fifty+ recurring NPCs that needed to be clearly differentiated and motivated and fit into the big picture in some way… some shortcuts using archetypes become a SURVIVAL MECHANISM.)

5. Flourish makes memories.

I only run games–I do not play them. I have said many times to all of my group that I am a trash player, and it is true. I have too many control issues and I am too fond of telling stories. But to trade off for always being the one to plot the campaign, I try to make each campaign we play unique and memorable–not just in terms of what happens in the plot, but in terms of the flourishes.

Here are three examples:

  1. Our Shadowrun game had been building for years towards the election (and assassination) of the dragon Dunkelzahn. I had a massive campaign poster printed for the dragon’s presidential election and hung that in the game room on election night.
  2. Whenever we start a new game that uses any kind of expendable currency (Fate Points, Karma, Pathos Points, whatever) I find a unique form of token to use that feels appropriate to the game. Sure, we could just use glass beads… but copper coins with dragons etched on them for Karma Points in Earthdawn: Age of Legend or black and silver plastic skulls for Pathos and Willpower points in Wraith, or red, white, and blue poker chips for Delta Points in Brave New World, add a tactile, visual flare to the game and help to set the tone.
  3. This is the big one. I make musicals. Maybe you know this about me, but in games of a certain style (usually just World of Darkness games, actually–especially Mage) I try to build a musical episode as the finale of Act IV that advances all of the plots. Not only do I work with the players to pick songs that will advance their character’s arcs and pick songs to move all of the major NPCs, I also burn CDs of the music for everyone, print programs with all of the lyrics, write cue cards that help each character tee up their song at the right time in their dialogue, I make a custom cocktail for the event… OK. The musicals are OBSCENELY OVER THE TOP. I have done two major musicals, one in 2005 and one in 2015. They are two of my favorite memories of all time.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Gaming is a communal experience where a group of people work together to craft something magical from the fire of imagination. If you are lucky enough to be the one shepherding that process… I hope you found something in this endless post to give you courage or hope or confidence or–at the very least–a new idea or two.

May there by riotous laughter and nail-biting tension around your table… and may there always be another musical Act IV finale in our futures.

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Work in Progress: NI Nostalgia Game #6 – GARGOYLES

As part of PendraCon — the virtual convention I am hosting from October 3 through 10 focusing on the various fictional worlds I have created over the years–I engaged in a Game-in-a-Day challenge. In the past such a challenge yielded the awesome Thundercats RPG… but this time, the complexities (and my love) for Gargoyles were too much to handle.

The game is NOT finished, but will be by the end of PendraCon. In order to keep my word, however, I am posting the Work In Progress version for anyone who wanders over this way before the final goes up.

Note that this file has not yet been made pretty. It has typos and design flaws and NOTHING is yet final. Things in yellow highlight are DEFINITELY wrong, as they are mostly things from the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe RPG, since I used that file as my starting place for this project.

Nonetheless, I hope that if you take the time to peek at Gargoyles you see the bones of a game that sounds interesting! I have a ways to go on it, but there should be enough there for you to see where it is going.

Without further preamble: HERE YOU GO!

Come back on or after October 10th to see the complete game and to grab any and all other Nostalgia games that you might be missing!

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Normal

So I am sort of drowning (but also, strangely, floating) in something right now. As I have an irregular tendency to do, I thought I would work through my issues here on the blog.

Now, those of you who follow the blog for way more fun things, please know… fun is coming back soon! But today, I want to talk about an impossibly double-edged sword: Normalcy.

I have outgrown the period of time where I just wanted to be “normal,” and I have heard (and said myself!) all the platitudes about how normal is boring. I am 100% in the camp that weird is wonderful, and that all of us have our own specialness and idiosyncrasy and that the sum of all that individuality is what makes us capable of collective awesomeness. I am ON THAT TEAM. Do not for a minute think that when I speak of normalcy in the paragraphs that follow, I mean conformity. Hell-to-the-no.

But…

But two things have happened in recent days that have got me deeply ruminating on what normal means to me. I think the secret truth is that no matter how proudly individual I am… I still crave some element of normalcy. I also think that deep down inside, most of us do. The case I think I want to make (to myself as much as to any of you reading this!) is that a desire for normal is OK. That it may even be healthy, to an extent.

So there are two things here. They could not be more different. Let’s start with the small one.

Starbucks

I am in love with Starbucks. Many of you may already know this, because I talk about it A LOT. But it’s true–if you look back at my classic 7 Great Loves of My Life post, you’ll note that there are only seven, and everyone knows my number for lists is 8. Starbucks is that 8th love.

And here’s the thing: I don’t drink coffee.

My love of Starbucks goes way deeper than a venti green iced tea with no water, no liquid cane sugar, and three pumps of raspberry. I love that place because it is where I can go to escape from anything else in the world that is weighing me down. I can go and sit down at my seat (and yes, there is a seat that is mine, and woe betide anyone who dares sit in it. I shall irritate such a one with a most intensely daggerish-stare until it is relinquished!) and WRITE. I will sip my tea and I will write and write and write until they throw me out at the end of the night. It is the best thing in the world. My sacred space.

While I’m there, I will occasionally strike up a conversation with the wonderful crew that works there. The faces changes from time to time (and sometimes it is so hard to see people go that I could write a whole blog about that, but… keep it together, Jeremy) but there’s always an energy and a friendliness that remains. People get paid to work. Sometimes they get paid to be nice. But no one is getting paid to make me feel at home… that’s just something they do.

Three Spiralchain books and at least three Omnigenos Chronicles books STRAIGHT UP would not exist if my Starbucks were gone. Starbucks got a shout out in the dedication of Shadowbender, and I have an alarming tendency to steal names or likenesses of Starbucks people when I realize a scene needs another character. Apologies, all.

Anyway. Starbucks is my normal–it’s my tried-and-true. No matter what else is happening in the world, it is my shortcut to my center. It is a fundamental component of my mental health tool box.

Which is why this Coronavirus world in which we live has been KICKING. MY. ASS.

87 days ago was the last time customers could step foot in our Starbucks. I went on that last day and I said good-bye to everyone and we laughed and talked and… and it sucked. It sucked because I was saying good-bye to people and a place and my shortcut to my center. I was saying goodbye to normal.

So were lots of people, of course. The world was reeling (and still is) from this pandemic, and my whining about not being able to go into the coffeeshop is really, really spoiled and privileged. I know that. But it was not about the coffee (or the tea, in my case). It was about the powerful role that that place and its people play in my sense of normal.

Today… I got to step inside the store again. They actually reopened the inside (to-go only, people still can’t sit down and write, but that’s for the best, I get that!) yesterday… but yesterday was a very challenging day (see below) so… I waited til today. I waited til I would be in a better space to go in and smile through my mask and say hi to all of my friends on their home turf once more. I am fighting the urge to list names here, because I will invariably forget someone. Y’all know who you are.

Anyway. The minute I walked through the door, I about lost my shit. I was hit by this whirlwind of emotions. So many great people were there working, all at once. Big smiles. Kind words. I could feel the air of that place on my skin in a way that had been missing for 87 days. My plan was to stick around for a minute (as long as there weren’t too many people there waiting) and chat… but I couldn’t do it. It was too much.

I could feel the normal all around me, and I didn’t know what to do with it. Like the parable of the frog that doesn’t know it’s being boiled alive, the corrosion of my sense of wellbeing over the past three months has been so gradual that I didn’t realize how bad it had gotten. Today, I felt it. I felt how much this forced season of introversion and separation has cost my brain… and how much work I need to do to offset that.

It helps knowing that a piece of that normalcy that serves as the foundation of my sense of wellbeing is back in play. And it’s pretty much impossible for me to ever convey the significance of that, and the power of the people who are a part of that, in a way that doesn’t make me sound super weird. But that’s pretty much the story of my life. 🙂

OK. That was one thing about normal. The other comes from a very different angle, but I think I can pull it all together in the end. We’ll see.

Yesterday, the United State Supreme Court ruled that employment discrimination on the basis of a person’s status as an LGBTQ+ person was prohibited under the law.

In my forty years on this earth, I have depended on that court’s kind and just execution of their duties for many fundamental rights and powers. Three come immediately to mind:

  • The court decided that consensual sex between partners of the same sex was not illegal. [2003]
  • The court decided that people of the same sex could wed. [2015]
  • The court decided that employers couldn’t fire a person just for being gay (or trans or any of the other sexual and gender identities on the spectrum). [2020]

Things that other people take for granted–that are a regular, steady part of normal for them–have been doled out in slow, sporadic spoonfuls to LGBTQ+ people. We wait–with increasingly little patience, mind you–for those tastes of normal. We wait for the court to decide that the time is right. That people are ready. That is not to sound ungrateful to the court so much as to sound massively. endlessly frustrated with a world in which we need a court to remind us of basic human decency.

Yesterday was a significant change to normal all around our country. It came at a time when wins are hard to find, and when our energy is (rightly!) very focused on change of a different sort. The wildly consistent pattern of discrimination and injustice visited upon people of color in our country, particularly Black people, is undeniable.

So it feels weird to be so fabulously, gloriously, joyously thrilled by yesterday’s news… because there is so much more to do. So much more change required so that everyone can have a normal rooted in justice, fairness, and assured opportunity.

But I took that moment yesterday to celebrate this tiny step, this tiny spoonful, because… because dammit, we’re hungry. We’re hungry for a state of well-being that was supposed to be the promise of this country to every one of its children.

Normal gets a bad rap these days, as I said. We decry it and we deny it and we scoff at it as submission to mediocrity. But the truth, as I see it, is that the problem isn’t that the idea of normal is bad.

The problem is that our normal, right now, is bad. We have become conditioned to accept less and less good, more and more pain. We are all the damn frog in the pot of water, and the world–a world full of systems in which we are all complicit in our silence if not in our active participation–has been slowly turning the dial, heating the water, and waiting for our silent demise.

Fighting for normal is fighting for mental health. For physical health. For peace. For equity. For power in the face of oppression. For the eradication of that oppression.

Normal is having a place to belong.

And anyone who thinks that a person is too queer, too complicated, too Black, too emotional, too ANY-DAMN-THING to have a place to belong… the world is going to move past those people. I believe that more today than I ever have before. Marching and picketing and protesting and lobbying and voting and painting and writing and speaking and singing and petitioning and learning and LOVING, fighting from and for our places of power and peace and well-being… we have momentum on our side.

Find your place, find your way, find your voice… and if we all work together, we can make the normal of this world into something of which we can be proud.

Be safe. Be well. Be whole.

 

Posted in Family, Friends, Lifestyle, Steam Vents, The Seven Great Loves of my Life | 6 Comments