4 Podcasts to Delight Your Geeky Ears

You know what’s almost as good as reading? Listening. Sometimes it’s even better – after all, reading while driving is a recipe for disaster. And in the age of the podcast, you don’t even have to rely on radio schedules for what was once the rarest of treats – an audio program to entertain nerds.

A whole bunch of people I know and admire now make podcasts, so here are four recommendations, things I’m not involved with but love listening to.

breaking-glass-slipper-logo-620x330Breaking the Glass Slipper

Featuring writers Charlotte Bond, Lucy Hounsom and Megan Leigh, Breaking the Glass Slipper is a literary podcast discussing women in science fiction and fantasy. The first episode was an interesting discussion of why female authors feature so seldom in “best of” lists. If you enjoy intelligent discussion of sf+f, and in particular if you’ve been following recent debates about representation in fandom, then this one is for you.

cdsCrudely Drawn Swords

Many of the most entertaining weekends I’ve ever had were spent live roleplaying with a group of hilariously surreal and outlandish gamers. Now some of them have put together Crudely Drawn Swords, in which we follow the adventures of four mismatched heroes trying to save the kingdom. There’s Enigma (Ali), the hipster rogue; Tristan (Stu), the bloodthirsty bard; Bambari (Mags), a mage with a pet rock; and Sir Percival (Gwyn), their heroic leader, trying not to laugh at inappropriate moments. Gamesmastered and produced by Ben Moxon, it’s a story of good intentions and bad puns, using the Dungeon World roleplay system and some of the most entertaining people I know.

The Learning Clifflc

I find  Eve Online endlessly fascinating. It’s a galaxy-spanning online computer game of massive space fleets and interplanetary industry, so complex and with so many players that academics have used it to gain insight into real economic and social trends. Sadly, I don’t have the time or patience to play it myself. Fortunately, I have people who play it for me, and for anyone else who wants to learn about the game or give it a try. Nick, an experienced player, talks new player Will through the Eve gaming experience week by week, while Will asks important questions like “how do I get a clone?”, “why are people shooting at me?” and “why don’t these spaceships make any sense?” From mining colonies to art installations made of corpses, imaginary space is a weird place.

played upPlayed Up

This one’s less purely nerdy, but should still appeal. The RH Experience are an improvisational comedy group, featuring my friend Dan on guitar. Every week on their show Played Up they invite a guest to join them and share a selection of their favourite tapes. Except that the tapes aren’t real, the music on them is imaginary, and the RH Experience have to make it up. Prepare for some strange and hilarious listening.

 

Any Other Recommendations?

There you go – four podcasts I think you might enjoy. If you have some other recommendations then please leave them below.

Also, I’m thinking of podcasting my Friday flash stories, so if that’s something you’d listen to then let me know that too.No promises, but it’s something I’m seriously considering.

Sharing the Joy of Star Wars

tfa_poster_wide_headerThey may not be the most innovative of stories, but for me the Star Wars films have gained huge value. I realised it when I bought The Force Awakens on DVD. The woman behind the counter wasn’t a huge fan, but we chatted about how her husband watched it twice in a row. When I tweeted as I re-watched the film, I quickly got quick responses from people I know, ranging from discussing favourite lines to asking my thoughts on the up coming Rogue One film.

There’s something similar with Star Wars games. When I bought Star Wars Battlefront for my PS4, the woman behind the counter talked about her love of it and her excitement at playing well-known characters. I went to play the X-Wing miniatures game at a games store in London recently, and the moment we put x-wing models on the table, everyone present, both friends and passing gamers, had something in common. X-Wing has been a real boon to my social circle, a game and setting lots of us love, which makes a fun talking point, and which draws other geeks in.

I get excited about Star Wars because of associations I have from childhood. But its huge popularity brings another emotional benefit. Wherever I go, it gives me something to talk about with people. It’s a way to connect, to carefully test the boundaries of new people’s geekery, to find out how much we have in common. Because the massive power of such works might not be good for cultural diversity, but it’s great for connecting people together.

 

Dead Detectives and Exponential Complexity

Picture by paurian via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by paurian via Flickr Creative Commons

I’ve been writing a murder mystery dinner party. This isn’t the first time I’ve done this, but it is the first time I’ve created one with so many player suspects. It’s been a real eye opener on the exponential effect of adding complexity to stories.

There are a dozen characters in this game, plus the victim, who doesn’t get played. When I write this sort of murder mystery game, I create various details for each character – three secrets, three resources to influence other people, three aims for the evening, and two relationships with each other character – the relationship the others see, and the secret relationship behind that. These details are there to ensure that no-one is ever bored and to create the haze of suspicions and red herrings through which the players try to identify the murderer.

You can probably see already why doubling the number of players doesn’t just double the complexity. Every new character has to have relationships with each other character, and that creates an exponential growth in relationships. As a creative exercise they’re a lot of fun to create, but it’s also taxing – there’s a lot to think about, and each time I’m adding a detail I have to work out how it connects up with the rest.

In a way, this applies when writing stories, and in another way it doesn’t. Each detail you add – a person, a place, an event – has the potential to interact with everything else, so the growth in potential is exponential. But you control the narrative, including which things interact, and so you can avoid defining all those interactions – something I can’t do with a murder mystery game.

The problem comes if you’re too controlled. There might be interactions readers will look at and go “what about those two characters? surely they would have talked about x?” You don’t want to look at all those interactions, but the more of them could exist, the more holes can be picked. The potential to miss something important grows exponentially.

So if you want to write about five ideas, and you don’t want to spend a long time writing about them, is it better to split them into two stories than to roll them all into one, dealing with all their interactions?

Maybe. I’m not totally sure. I’m still thinking through the implications. What do you reckon?

 

If you’re interested in commissioning a murder mystery party, you can find the details here. And remember, my new book A Mosaic of Stars, collecting together over a year’s worth of weekly short stories, is available for pre-order as a Kindle e-book now.

Can Character Motives Be Too Strong?

I’ve been playing a lot of Fallout 4 recently, and I’m starting to hate the protagonist’s motivation.

Just me and my dog, playing catch at the end of the world.
Just me and my dog, playing catch at the end of the world.

In case you aren’t familiar with it, Fallout 4 is set in a post-apocalyptic America with a 1950s vibe. It’s an amazing looking game that lets you interact with a fascinating world, just roaming around, exploring, talking with the people who inhabit it.

That’s where the problem with the motive comes in. As the protagonist, you’re meant to be rescuing your son who has been kidnapped. That’s powerful stuff. It makes sense that, as a parent, you’d be completely focused on that task, to the exclusion of all else. It provides the core for a tense, compelling narrative.

But this is a big sandbox game. I want to wander around, get into conversations and side-quests, rebuild settlements, flirt with the scrappy journalist, upgrade my guns, maybe cook some radstag stew. I’m avoiding the quest for my son because I know that, if I follow it, that will drag me at speed towards the end of the game. I don’t want that end. I want to take my pet dog out hunting molerats.

The result is that, if I step back and think about my character, I realise he’s a terrible person. His wife has just been killed.* His son has been carried off by terrible people. And his response is to wander around, eyeing up the scenery, collecting random junk and chatting with strangers. He should be putting all his energy into saving his family, and most of the time he doesn’t even think about them. I’m trying to play as a good guy, a character rebuilding civilisation, but in the context of the plot my priorities are monstrous.

It’s like those moments in films where the lead characters stop to kiss at the height of the action, and you’re sat there thinking “stop wasting vital seconds – there are lives at stake!” It makes dramatic sense, but not human sense. Their motives to press on have been made too powerful for them to do what the writers want.

In terms of writing, I’ve taken a big lesson from this – strong motives are good, but make sure they aren’t so strong that they’ll outweigh everything else you want to include. In Fallout 4 though, I’m going to stick with being an inconsistent monster. I’m enjoying my wanderings too much not to.

The Geekend

Getting over-excited - the essence of the geekend.
Getting over-excited – the essence of the geekend.

I picked up a new word at Fantasy Con, and it’s a word I now know I always needed. That word is geekend.

Most of my best weekends are geekends. I might be at a fantasy convention, a live roleplay game, a board gaming meet up, or just hanging out with friends playing drinking beer and talking about comics. There’s a shared atmosphere to all these occasions – a sense of enthusiasm, relaxation and geeky camaraderie. I might drift between my different nerdy hobbies, but the core pleasure remains, and that pleasure is the geekend.

Credit for this new piece of vocabulary goes to David Tallerman. I don’t know whether he can be credited with its invention – that’s the problem with writers, they’re always making stuff up. But learning the word over drinks in a convention bar, from a friend I met over drinks in a convention bar, that’s perfect.

Do you turn your weekends into geekends? Have you just got back from one? Share your particular enthusiasms below – what do you love enough to spend a whole weekend nerding out over it?

8 Awesome Arts of Reinvention

So much of what is best in our culture is about taking what you’re given and playfully reinventing it. Having thought some more about this, I came up with a list of eight art forms that I consider great, and to which this is really central:

Cosplay

My friend Katy becoming the crown prince of crime
My friend Katy becoming the clown prince of crime

What greater tribute could anyone make to a fictional character than to go to the effort of dressing up as them? Of course that effort varies from a brief wardrobe rummage to building a giant cardboard robot suit, but it all comes down to the same thing – remodelling an existing character in the form of you.

Covers of Songs

A good cover version can transform a song into something entirely new and unexpected. From Guns n Roses making Paul McCartney sound metal, through to Postmodern Jukebox making Pitbull songs bearable, it creates some amazing moments.

Modding

Some computer game modders dedicate themselves to creating new locations, characters and weapons for players. Others just want to make monsters look like Thomas the Tank Engine. Whatever the approach, it’s another layer of play in a medium that’s already all about playing.

"Yes sir, your gun looks magnificent. Honest." Picture by Joshua Ezzell via Flcikr Creative Commons
“Yes sir, your gun looks magnificent. Honest.”
Picture by Joshua Ezzell via Flcikr Creative Commons

Painting Wargames Miniatures

Incredible craftsmen make the tiny sculptures that adorn toy battlefields and roleplay tables across the world, and they do so knowing that what they’ve made isn’t even the end product. There are whole competitions dedicated to the art of painting figures an inch tall, techniques and styles that have been developed just for this. The results can be breathtaking, if you take the time to look.

Remixing

Yes, there are a lot of annoying, lazy remixes out there that just lay a dance beat underneath what was previously a passable song. But there is some amazing stuff too, like Girl Talk, whose music is made up entirely of samples, or the Heresy remix on Further Down the Spiral by Nine Inch Nails, a version that lifts a decent song into something pulse pounding.

Fan Fiction

Skilled writers like Naomi Novik have crafted entirely new stories from the inspiration they took from others – in the case of her Temeraire, combing Master and Commander with the dragons of Pern. And it’s something people enjoy for its own sake – imagining existing characters into different situations, and sharing them with like minded readers.

Model Trains

"Jimmy, does the wonder of the universe ever leaving you feeling a little small?" Picture by Walter via Flickr Creative Commons
“Jimmy, does the wonder of the universe ever leaving you feeling a little small?”
Picture by Walter via Flickr Creative Commons

When I was a kid, a friend of my parents had a model train set in his loft. He had taken the components others had made for him, from the trains and tracks to the houses, plastic people and components for trees, and built an entire landscape. That stuff is amazing.

The LRP of the TV Show

Live roleplay (LRP) games, where people take on the role of invented characters, often take ideas from other stories, but some are entirely dedicated to them. From Warhammer 40K to Joss Whedon’s Firefly, there are people running around the woods living those universes for a weekend. What could be more exciting than being a Browncoat for a day?

 

What else is there? What have I missed? And which of these do you enjoy? Share your thoughts – that’s what the comments are for.

R. A. Smith On Conflict in Games and Stories

Back in May, I heard fellow fantasy writer R A Smith talk about conflict in games and stories at Nerd East in Durham. Here are a few notes from that talk – really more of a relaxed chat with the audience – that I found useful:

  • The protagonist is either the lens for the trouble around them or, more often, the person going out and causing the trouble.
  • They never start by just wandering the world, their intentions just a blank sheet – they need to have an objective.
  • When talking about conflict in roleplay games we often start by thinking about fighting, as that’s what the characters are statted for.
  • Jim Butcher writes good blog posts on writing. He recommends focusing on the story question – what’s the book about? what’s driving the main plot?
  • When it happens, fighting should progress the story in some way.
  • How characters behave in a fight shows their personality – for example, do they disregard civilians?
  • Character and anticipation are important. This is why professional wrestling is successful – the draw is the soap opera element that makes fans anticipate each match in advance.
  • The Princess Bride has great storytelling fight scenes – for example the early fight between Wesley and Inigo Montoya, showing their motivations and styles.

If that’s given you a taste for more from R. A. Smith, the first two books in his Grenshall Manor Chronicles are out now, starting with Oblivion Storm. And if you’d like to see what I do with conflict, my collection of short fantasy stories By Sword, Stave or Stylus is still free on the Kindle until the end of today.

Writing Lessons From My Early Nerdery

Dignity was never my top priority as a student
Dignity was never my top priority as a student

Preparing to head back to Durham for the Nerd East convention has me feeling all nostalgic. I lived and studied there for seven years in total, and though I didn’t do much writing it has really shaped me as a writer. Joining the live roleplay society got me back into fantasy and science fiction in a big way, as well as giving me lots of great friends and character ideas. My first published story was in the university Science Fiction and Fantasy Society’s in-house fanzine, and won me a week’s worth of calories in chocolate form.

And as always, there were the lessons that weren’t directly writing related but have proved useful. I learned to work with others creating plots through LRP, as well as finding out how much chainmail weighs. I gained the confidence to put my stories and other creations out there. I watched a wide range of science fiction and fantasy films, making me better informed about the genres. And where else but a university game of killer could I have experienced what it’s like to stake out someone’s house? (I mean aside from the mob.)

Often the things we label as distractions provide useful lessons. Sure, that’s less true of all the time I spent drinking in the Student Union bar, but then I never needed my dignity all that much.

Or my liver.

If you’re in north east England then you can hear me talk on this more, as well as enjoying a day of geekery and gaming, on 30 May at Nerd East.

Change, Reaction and Pain – Coping With Cultural Backlash

'Hello, God? I know I don't believe in you, but could you please send everyone fluffy kittens - things are getting way too tense down here.'
‘Hello, God? I know I don’t believe in you, but could you please send everyone fluffy kittens – things are getting way too tense down here.’

I love that the world is changing. I love the variety that brings and the novelty it creates within our culture, even as the dark fingers of uncertainty send tremors of fear through my body.

Unfortunately, fear of change is currently rearing its big, ugly head all over geek culture.

The most prominent and hideous example of this is the treatment of feminists in computer gaming. There are some great designers and critics out there critiquing the domination of gaming by white, straight, male gamers and characters, and the way this excludes others. This has triggered a huge backlash, in which people have been called the vilest names and even had their lives threatened for expressing their opinions on a medium they love.

Then there’s the fuss, for the second year in a row, around science fiction and fantasy’s Hugo awards. I think there are a lot of problems with the Hugos, but they’re certainly high profile within the core of sf+f. This year, a reactionary group have managed to dominate the nominations with a slate of conservative, white, male authors. It’s a shame, but it is at least getting people engaged with the awards, and may favour the pro-diversity arguments in the long run.

Outside the world of geek, anti-immigrant party UKIP have risen to prominence in this year’s British general election. It’s no great revelation to say that an anti-immigrant party is reactionary and playing on people’s fears.

I find all of this distressing, especially given the way that it has impinged upon what I normally consider a safe space, the welcoming a varied world of geek culture. And I find it hard to balance my own emotional reactions.

On the one hand, I understand that change is frightening, that many of the reactionaries respond this way because they feel threatened. I feel sorry for their hurt and for the way that they aren’t able to embrace all this wonderful variety. But in understanding them and trying not to become reactionary against the reactions, I risk undervaluing my own feelings on the subject. They’re attacking things I value, they create an unpleasant atmosphere, and it’s not unreasonable for me and others like me to feel hurt by that, even a little frightened at where this is going.

I remain hopeful. I’ve always been something of an opportunistic humanist, and the history of humanity, as well as that of the culture I love, to me shows an upward trend toward great diversity and understanding. But there are downward moments as well as upward ones, both becoming ever shorter and more frequent as humanity grows and change accelerates. For the sake of my sanity, I’ll lean into the hurt as well as the hope, use it to power my own work, and remember that this too will pass.

Whatever the outcome of the Hugos, the general election, and a series of nasty Twitter spats, the diverse and joyful things I love aren’t going away. The ranting of sad and angry reactionaries will never stop that.