16 March 2007

Push 2: More Cover Previews

Bethany Culp is still hard at work on the Push 2 cover.

12 March 2007

Four Nations: Ghost Stories

One of the great storytellers and literary analysts of the dead talks about their narrative tradition.

Everyone must someday come to the Dark City. This means we cannot tell stories of the great heroes of the past, for they are here in person and might take offense. Eternal emnity is nothing to scoff at.

Indeed, we can only tell stories of those who are not here. Speculation about those currently living is common and there is also some fanciful speculation about future generations. However, that type of imagination is dangerous, as it reminds us all too dearly of life.

Instead we must speak of those among the dead who remain behind in the sunlands, those who have chosen not to journey to the Dark City. In our great epics, then, there are two main types of protagonists: ghosts and ghost hunters. The hunters often include members of the monastic order residing at Most Beautiful Cage, the sole outpost of the dead under the sun.

Of course, it is important to note that those seeking refuge at the Cage, while disciplined and highly regarded, are themselves ghosts. And that resonance with their prey, the close relationship between hunter and hunted, forms the basis of many of our stories.

There is also something transgressive about storytelling. The dreamers speak of nightmares. The pattern-walkers tell of those who sought to defy the pattern. The doorkeepers whisper of the places even they cannot reach. And so it is with the dead.

We speak of ghosts and those heroes among us responsible for tracking down them, seperating them from the echos of their past. As is often the case in heroic tales, it is always difficult -- intentionally so, I suspect -- to seperate heroes from villains, ghost from ghost hunter.

When the Grey Lady kisses her parents, children, and husband goodbye, swearing to join them in the Dark City once she has captured the ghost responsible for all their deaths... are we to compare her to the ghost she hunts?

As for our champions who issue forth from Most Beautiful Cage, are they not also tempted by the fruits of life? Do they not occasionally err in their pursuit of the errant? Is this not why we sympathize with them? Why we honor them? If even the most disciplined among us occasionally succumb to the taste of sweet cream or the ecstasy of sexual passion, that speaks to the nobility of our own frailties.

So the overarching theme of all our ghost stories, the question we constantly seek to explore is this: how are we to let go? How do we move on from life's joys and sorrows to an eternity without them? What does that brief candleflicker of bright sensations mean in the face of the long dark?

11 March 2007

Four Nations: Building the Dark City

I'm not totally happy with this, but it gets the basic idea across. And it's not like this is gonna be the final text or anything. But I figure we should maybe try to explain some of this Four Nations stuff.

There was a time, in the early days of the world, when death was a deep slumber. The newly dead fell asleep and their families lay them down in beds freshly dug into the earth.

The dead would dream in that subterranean land, the place below, the under-world. There, they would share pleasant visions or nightmares, all springing from the basket of memories they brought with them from life.

But the dead became unhappy. And so they harnessed their dreams to fight off their nightmares. Together they built a great stairway, leading them up from the world below back into the lands under the sun.

And the living welcomed the dead back into their homes. The dead had no dreams or nightmares anymore, for they left both under the ground. Neither did they sleep. But for a while the dead and the living dwelt in the same place.

It was not to last. There was a great battle. Each of the living that fell became one of the dead.

When the Dream Queen was slain, she rose from the ground as the Queen of the Dead. Surveying the field, she soon realized that, if the war was not halted, there would be no one left alive. She sounded her horn.

And so the dead separated themselves from the living. They drew away, beyond the light of the sun, to a place of shadow. There they build the Dark City to which all must one day travel. And the living stopped burying the dead, because the dead stopped sleeping. But neither could they dwell together.

And that is why the dead must travel, each in turn, to the Dark City. Those who remain behind among the living are ghosts. And trafficking with ghosts only leads to misfortune.

06 March 2007

Essex & Lady Walsingham

My dad sent me a copy of the HBO two-part movie Elizabeth I, starting recent Oscar winner Helen Mirren. It unfortunately doesn't mention Marlowe's killing, but it does feature nearly every other major character connected to that "great reckoning in a little room." Several good things came out of watching that film:

1) I don't have to write setting background for the game now. I can just say, watch Elizabeth I.

2) I know who the main characters of my game are: Lady Frances Walsingham, daughter of the previous spymaster and lady-in-waiting to the Queen, and, her second husband, Robert Devereux, the young Earl of Essex. Only Lady Walsingham is going to be significantly more badass than depicted in the film and Essex is going to be significantly less crazy. Otherwise, yeah, great characters.

So yeah, Josh, you and your girlfriend should totally see this film. It's pretty dern badass and is a fabulous introduction to what's going on during this period.

02 March 2007

Push 2 Cover: Evil Owl

Bethany Culp has tentatively signed on to do the cover for Push 2. The cover will depict a caput bubonis, an formerly good owl who has turned to evil and taken over a human body specifically for the purpose of meddling with the symbolic contents of a memory palace. Yes, like the last cover, this cover's content comes from an experimental short-form game, in this case Eero Tuovinen's Ludus Repotiorum, a roleplaying game based on the ars memoriae.

I'm mostly posting this here so the Push 2 contributors can discuss it, but I thought I'd share with you folks as well. Enjoy!

Epic Structure: Wandering Spotlight

As part of a book club for work (don't ask), I'm reading Pearl Buck's out-of-print translation of Shui You Zhuan (Outlaws of the Marsh, The Water Margin), which she arbitrarily decided to call All Men Are Brothers. It's a 700-page, illustrated tome of awesomeness. But what I'm concerned with here is the structure of the narrative, which is something that I don't think roleplaying knows how to handle very well.

Unlike the One Thousand Nights and a Night, the Shui You Zhuan has no frame story on both ends. It does, however, begin with a tale very much like "Pandora's Box," in which the arrogant Commander Hong frees an entire horde of evil spirits out into the world. Each of these spirits, as we'll discover later on, represents one of the main outlaws of the epic. The characters are loosed from their cage in order that the might perform their story for us. This is interesting, but not the part I want to dwell on.

Let's talk about the first 2 chapters and the prologue. Like all Chinese epics of this period, each chapter has a title in two parts, each part describing one of the main plot points of that chapter. In Buck's translations these are given as:

1. Chang, the Heavenly King, Chief of the Taoists, beseeches the Gods to drive away the evil flux.
2. The Commander Hung, in heedlessness, frees the spirits.

1. Wang the Chief Instructor goes secretly to Yien An Fu.
2. The Nine Dragoned makes a mighty turmoil at the Village of the Shih Family.

1. Shih Chin escapes by night from Hua Ying.
2. Captain Lu kills the bully of Kuangsi with his fists.

Simple enough, right? Okay, now watch who the central character of the narrative is as the story progresses.

1. Ch'en Tu, a Taoist hermit
2. Emperor Jen Chung
3. Commander Hung
4. Kao Ch'iu, a peasant who becomes a lord
5. Wang Ching, the head instructor
6. The two guards
7. Wang Ching
8. Shih Chin, a local thug
9. The Robber Chiefs
10. Shih Chin
11. The Robber Chiefs
12. Wang Shih, a servant
13. Shih Chin
14. Shin Chin
15. Lu Ta, a captain
16. Old Man Chin
17. Lu Ta
18. The people reacting to the butcher's death.
19. Chief Wang and others
20. Lu Ta

What you have is a "rolling cast." The story does not tarry overly long on any particular character, rather, it moves constantly, inventing minor characters and, just as easily, abandoning them as soon as they stop being the focus of the most interesting action. BUT! While it is focused on the two guards, those guards are the most interesting characters in the story, despite the fact that we'll never see them again in the entire epic.

Also, note how there's an overall sense of progress, how the characters slowly roll over and let new characters step to the front. The narrative spotlight is not going back and forth between several major characters (which is what roleplaying usually does). It does hover for a time around Wang Ching, Shi Chin, and Lu Ta, but you know eventually it will move on to other characters. Perhaps earlier characters will make appearances later on, possibly even be the spotlight character for a while, but the narrative is always looking for "new hosts."

Also, look at the wide range of social positions among the characters. We have emperors and sages and we have average thugs. And the narrative flows easily back and forth between them, making no real distinction when it comes to deciding "where the interesting action is." The plight of the local people is just as important as affairs of state or the emperor's personal life.

Anyway, this is something I'm hoping we can try to emulate, possibly in a modified form in the Exalted hack. And more extensively in Four Nations.

01 March 2007

Push 1 @ Six Months

I just ran the numbers on the first six months sales of Push vol 1. A PDF of the spreadsheet I'm using (which hopefully you'll be able to understand) is posted here.

An Overview
44 print sales: GenCon
62 print sales: Lulu
22 print sales: IPR (and sold at least 28 more since then)
36 pdf sales: Paypal + Email

128 print sales TOTAL
$1302.09 TOTAL PROFIT (about $7.95 a copy)

Now, looking at these numbers makes me want to run some other, more complicated figures, because I suspect we may not actually be making any money off sales to retailers through IPR. The additional tier of IPR's costs is not the problem; it's the 40% cut to retailers that is basically taking all our profit. If that is true, that's pretty significant and could spell a little trouble in paradise. Right now we're making slightly less than $3 on every copy sold through IPR (as opposed to $8-9 through other kinds of sales), but that includes about 1/3 sales to individual customers who don't get the 40% discount. Without those sales, our profits through IPR are even lower. Damn that extra tier.

In any case, I'll run those numbers this weekend and get back with what I can figure out. Honestly, I'm not entirely sure what our options might be if we really are making zero money (or worse, losing money) through retailer sales. It seems difficult to raise the price of the book only when it comes to retailers. And raising the price across the board at IPR seems less than swell too. Bailing on IPR completely is totally the last resort; hopefully it won't come to that. In any case, let that be a heads up to people. Getting your books to retailers sounds great, but the cost of doing that, even using great folks like IPR and Key20, can still be pretty staggering.

I'll try to put a month-by-month breakdown or graph together too.