What writers can learn from fantasy RPG’s

Back in the early 1980s I used to do role-playing games. It began with the old classic, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons™, which came with hardback rule books, dice and long evenings with friends where everything was defined by random die roll:

Dungeon Master: You enter a room and [rattle of dice] find a wardrobe.
Player: My character opens the wardrobe and [rattle of dice] steps in. Are there fur coats?
Dungeon Master: [rattle of dice] The wardrobe is a shape shifted Gob Monster. Make a saving throw.
Player: [rattle of dice] Failed.
Dungeon Master: You’ve been swallowed and are about to pass through the [rattle of dice] duodenum.
Player: My character says [rattle of dice] “Aaaargh”.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to re-draw and digitise. Similarity to the coast of Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, is entirely coincidental. Honestly, officer.

However, our little group balked at the way the whole was framed around hack-and-sorcery stereotypes, into which had been droozled elements of Tolkien. Then there was the way characters were ‘aligned’ to a nine-space cliche morality grid. Even as young twenty-somethings, we knew human reality was a tad more complex:

Player: My character backstabs the Elf and steals the magic dingus.
Dungeon Master: You can’t do that, you’re Lawful Good.
Player: Haven’t you heard of the law of the jungle...and it’s good for me.

We shortly ditched the game and swung into creating our own, which was very different and built around telling the story of characters in a fantasy world, largely via what amounted to improvised theatre between the players – collaborative creativity. Character names varied from the German slang for ashtrays to a brand name of analog synthesisers. Place names commemorated 1980s synth-pop bands and motorcycle part makers. The rest came from Bored of the Rings

The panel of one of my analog synths... dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable.

This brand of analog synth became a character name. I own the synth pictured here…but it wasn’t my character. Anybody care to guess the name?

As you can guess, if it was silly, it usually happened. A lot got written down. And therein is the lesson. It was good practise. The rules and scenarios demanded creativity, and an ability to write in ways others could follow. Afterwards, we got down to writing down the adventures. None of it is publishable – or readable outside the playing group, now scattered. (The guy that developed the map and game with me, these days, is an indie film-maker in the UK, for instance.)

I last played our RPG©®™ nearly 30 years ago. We’d come to the end of the world scenario, and our characters had gone through their development arcs. We deliberately ended it with a final adventure that wrapped up the characters. The end. It was fun at the time, but I don’t miss it. What counts – now – is the way it created writing experience. Part of the million word journey from unconscious incompetence to making writing part of your soul.

Did you play AD&D™ or its variants? Did you write down those adventures? Or is there something else you’ve done that has captured your imagination and got you writing?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

And now, some shameless self promotion: Where that million word apprenticeship led me:

It’s also available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Nook is coming soon.

You can still buy the print edition here: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

All the good Trek stuff was invented by Robert A Heinlein

OK, so ‘Captain James Tiberius Kirk’ got pinged on Monday for drink-driving, here in New Zealand.

supernovaWell, not actually Kirk, he’s fictional. I mean Chris Pine, who plays him in the movie re-boot. According to the reports, Pine was stopped in Methven (of all places), after a wrap party for a movie he’s been shooting here. It’s made major news internationally.

To me the media frenzy underscored the way Star Trek has been entwined into modern culture. In fifty-odd years since the original Shatner-Nimoy-Kelley series it’s gone from fan fodder to mainstream entertainment.

For me the real appeal of Trek has always been Roddenberry’s optimistic vision for society. This really was futuristic. But there’s also been a lot of focus on its supposed anticipation of today’s tech – everything from automatic doors to cellphones. That’s less compelling. The auto-door and cellphone also hit TV at the same time in Get Smart, underscoring the fact that Trek tech was of its time. Much of its gee-whizz stuff actually drew from prevailing mid-twentieth century visions, all of which missed the bulk of the information age revolution and focussed on mega-rockets and star drives. The best of the Trek stuff, as far as I can tell, came from Robert Anson Heinlein – an American literary great. He was also an engineer, and it showed.

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Why is it in this post? Just because. Click to enlarge.

1. Medical beds
McCoy’s sick bay was the epitome of high-tech in 1965, complete with medical beds that monitored patient vital signs. We have them today thanks to doctors inspired by Trek. However, Heinlein described one nearly a decade earlier in Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (1958).

2. Communicators (cellphones).
The Trek communicator was a radio. No cell networks on alien planets – your signal’s got to punch through to the Enterprise in its 200-mile orbit (I’m glad I don’t have to hold a kilowatt transmitter to my ear). However, these days they’re widely taken to be ‘cellphones’. Setting aside Buck Henry’s ‘shoe phone’ in Get Smart, the first description of an actual cellphone, in everyday use, was in Heinlein’s 1948 novel Space Cadet.

3. Tribbles
My favourite Trek episode is David Gerrold’s ‘Trouble with Tribbles’. Proof that Shatner, McCoy and Nimoy were really a comedy trio with Nimoy as the ‘straight man’ (he can also be very funny, check out ‘The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins‘. But I digress.) In ‘Tribbles’, a space station gets over-run with cute ‘cat’ creatures that reproduce asexually if you feed them. The creature – and plot - so precisely followed Heinlein’s ‘flat cat’ from Space Family Stone (1952) (aka ‘The Rolling Stones’) that the producers apparently asked Heinlein for permission. Heinlein himself, incidentally, apparently drew inspiration for his 1952 tale from a 1905 story by Ellis Parker Butler called ‘Pigs is Pigs‘.

4. Starfleet
This is influenced by Heinlein’s ‘Space Patrol’ from Space Cadet. Explicitly – Roddenberry said so. Again, Heinlein had an antecedent  - Space Cadet was basically ‘US Naval Academy In Space’. (As an aside, he precisely described the physics of space-walking in this book – 17 years before NASA had to re-discover the principles).

Needless to say, Trek wasn’t the only SF tech Heinlein did first. Remember Star Gate? Go read Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky (1955). What about Dr Who‘s TARDIS, that can go anywhere in time and space? Try Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (1958). And the idea that your star-drive also makes a dandy weapon – a key schtik in Larry Niven’s ‘Known Space’ series? That was a throw-away line in Heinlein’s Time for the Stars (1956).

All of which points to one thing – Heinlein was a very great writer, by any measure – and a great engineer and thinker.

Indeed, some of us encounter his ideas every night, in our own homes, whether we’re reading one of his books or not. Guess who devised (and eventually patented) the modern waterbed?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More science, more writing tips, more fun.

More fun with Kiwi slang

Decades ago, when I was ‘flatting’, one of my flatmates (roomies) was American – direct from Brattleboro, Vermont, in fact – and took huge delight in making jokes about the differences between American English and New Zild slang.

Needless to say the Kiwi contingent of the flat (apartment) joined with great glee. Phrases like ‘can I borrow a rubber’ (eraser) suddenly became hilarious. And some Kiwi terms are pretty funny anyway when you think about them. Here’s a sample:

Sweet as. Not actually a complement about someone’s bottom. It’s a contraction of ‘Sweet as a nut’, meaning ‘it’s good’ or ‘I’m happy with that’.
Up the duff. Scatological, inherited from Britain. Means ‘pregnant’.
Hottie. A hot water bottle, used to pre-warm a bed in pre-electric blanket days.
Having a quiet one. Drinking only one or two bottles of beer instead of the usual 48.
Eh. Filler word used to end a phrase, similar to the Canadian ‘Eh’, but in origins probably a borrow word from Te Reo Maori.
She’ll be right. ‘I’m happy with that’.
Yeah, right. Means the previous statement was sarcastic and meant the opposite. Focus of a major beer advertising campaign.

English is such a funny language sometimes. Do you have any quirky terms you’d like to share?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Writing tips, geekery, humour and more. Watch this space.

Six degrees of Bacon. Maybe.

A few weeks back I happened to mention Thunderbirds to a friend of mine.

A photo I took of the Corgi Thunderbird 2 model I've had since forever... And it's not tilt-shift. This is what happens on a focal length of 190mm at f 5.6, natural light with exposure time of 1/100.

A photo I took of the Corgi Thunderbird 2 model I’ve had since forever… And it’s not tilt-shift. This is what happens on a focal length of 190mm at f 5.6, natural light with exposure time of 1/100.

‘Oh, Gerry,’ he said. ‘I did some work for him, back when I was in the UK.’

Makes that friend of mine one degree of separation from the late director, Gerry Anderson. Small world.

The actual game is linking actors in less than six steps, via movies they’ve been in, to Kevin Bacon. Another friend suggested calling them ‘rashers’, as in bacon but also Bacon. The game works in real life, too. For instance, two of my regular readers, each independently, are two ‘rashers’ from Neil Armstrong, and I bet there are connections other readers have that I don’t know about.

In New Zealand, we’re all meant to be two degrees apart by default, and one of our phone companies calls itself ‘Two Degrees’ for that reason. Actually it’s not true, it’s more like three or four, even within miniscule communities such as the New Zealand history field or writing. Personally, I’ve got fewer ‘rashers’ to Gerry Anderson.

Neil Armstrong in the LM, tired but elated after the first moon walk, 20 July 1969. Photo: NASA

Neil Armstrong in the LM, tired but elated after the first moon walk, 20 July 1969. Photo: NASA, public domain.

In any case, it’s difficult to test empirically. I’ve seen figures such as an actual ‘degree of separation’ between any two random people on the planet (let’s call it the ‘Bacon Number’) of 6.6. However, I suspect this is true only within similar cultures. That’s because ‘degrees of Bacon’ pivot on ‘connectors’. One individual opens up a network of others.

Trouble is, knowing that I am connected to another Joe Blow by 6.6 links – someone I don’t know, will never meet, and whose life is as ordinary as mine – isn’t all that interesting – which is why the game’s usually played by figuring out your chain ‘o links to somebody famous.  ‘I danced with a woman who danced with a man who danced with a woman who danced with the Prince of Wales’. Total strangers, in other words – by definition, nobody has direct connection beyond the first link. But it shows us how human society is linked, which is pretty interesting.

And it’s kinda fun. Can you link yourself to Kevin Bacon via people you can link to (however indirectly) who’ve appeared in movies? Here’s the tool http://oracleofbacon.org/

I can do it in five ‘rashers’. An immediate family member had an actress friend who starred in an early ’70s British horror movie with Christopher Lee, who was in Airport ’77 with John Kerry, who was in Frost/Nixon with…Kevin Bacon. For me the coolest part of this link is it puts me six degrees from everybody in Apollo 13, which was one awesome film.

You?

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery, humour and more. Watch this space.

I miss my future. It’s been taken from me.

I miss my future. When I was a kid, 21st-century food was going to be pre-packaged space pap. We would all, inevitably, be eating  paste out of tubes. It was futuristic. It was progress.

On  the way to Mars, concept for 1981 flight,via NASA.

The future of 1970: a Mars mission, 1981 style.

Today? We’re in that future. And I still cook fresh veggies and steak. Some of it from the garden (the veggies, not the steak).

When I was a teenager, plastic cards were going to kill cash. In the 21st century we’d just have cards. It was inevitable. It was the future. Get with the program. Today? We use more cash than ever, but chequebooks died.

When I was in my twenties, video was going to kill the movies. It was inevitable. We just had to accept it. When I last looked, movies were bigger than ever – didn’t The Hobbit, Part 2,889,332 just rake in a billion at the box office?

And, of course, personal computers were going to give us the paperless office. Except that today every office is awash with …yup, paper, generated by what we produce on computer, churning out of giant multi-function copiers that run endlessly, every second the office is open.

Did we fail to adopt all these things hard or fast enough? Is it just that technology hasn’t quite delivered what was expected – but it will, it will? No. The problem is with the way we think – with the faulty way we imagine change occurs over time with technology and people. With the way we assume any novelty will dominate our whole future. With the way we inevitably home in on single-cause reasons for change, when in reality anything to do with human society is going to exist in many more than fifty shades of grey. The problem is a fundamental misunderstanding – driven by the simplistic ‘progressive’ mind-set that has so dominated popular thinking since the Age of Reason.

I know all that. But still…I miss my future.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science, history and more. Watch this space.

Hair today…gone tomorrow…

The other day my wife went to her hairdresser. A regular occurrence. As, indeed, was our conversation:

[INTERIOR: house, morning]
She Who Must Be Obeyed: I’m off to the hairdresser.
Me [OS]: If it’s a longer bob-cut, can I call it a robert?
[SFX: loud groans and jeers]

MJWright2011Yup, the long winter evenings just FLY by in our household. Though from my perspective, the reason why women spend afternoons in the salon at hundreds of dollars per visit, complete with bleaches, dyes and styling, has always been a mystery. I usually try to relieve She Who Must Be Obeyed’s likely boredom while she’s there by sending helpful texts like “I double dog dare ya to get a mullet”.

I really can’t understand it. I mean, money’s actually earned to be spent on beer, stuff for the toolshed, and over-powered cars. I go to the barber on a necessity basis, and it takes four minutes. What’s more, my style hasn’t changed since I was eight, viz:

1970 – Ed Straker
1980 – Ed Straker
1990 – Ed Straker
2000 – Ed Straker
2010 – Ed Straker

I would say “2020 – Ed Straker”, but it’s likely to have all fallen out by then. You know…hair today, gone tomorrow… (groan).

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Writing tips, geekery and more. Watch this space.

Where old American school-buses go to die

I promised a few surprise posts this year. Here’s the first. A couple of years ago the City Council in Napier, New Zealand, decided to spend about $1.1 million on two old Thomas school-buses, which they had customised in California for that quintessential Flash Gordon look – specifically, streamline moderne.

Napier deco bus 'Belle' outside the former Hawke's Bay Museum and Art Gallery.

Napier deco bus ‘Belle’ outside the former Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery.

It was intended to match the city’s art deco theme, but the plan didn’t go well. The buses arrived in New Zealand in late 2012 and were declared un-roadworthy on inspection in Wellington. That cost $100,000 to rectify,  and then when they did hit Napier streets in April 2013 they netted a grand total of 11 paying passengers a day, for a dead loss to the Council of $58,000 through August. It was late 2013 before passenger numbers rose.

Napier deco bus 'Belle'.

Napier deco bus ‘Belle’.

My take? If you’re going to customise an American school bus, do this. I’d pay for a ride. You?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Regular writing posts, science geekery and more.

Welcome to 2014 in M J Wright blog-o-land

It’s 2014 – and I’m rolling into the new year and new blog posts. I’ve got a full programme lined up for you kind folks this next few months.

MJWright2011There’s ‘Essential Writing Skills’ – a regular weekly series outlining what writers need. It’s backed by my 30 years in the business as a published author, publisher and journalist. You’ll discover what writers need to write well, effectively – and get results. Everything from editing to proofing to writing to content to viewing the projects as a business to approaching publishers and agents – and more.

There’s ‘Write It Now’ – musings on writing, books and the industry, including where it’s going, why it’s going there, and what we can do about it.

I’ve got more weekly science and sci-fi geekery, spiced with history and other cool stuff. And more fun stuff – humour, commentaries, thoughts and more. Why? Because life needs to be fun.

For the next few months, the schedule is:

Mondays NZT (Sunday EST) – Write It Now
Tuesday or Wednesday NZT (Monday or Tuesday EST) – Fun science or fun history. Or something similar.
Saturday NZT (Friday EST) – Essential Writing Skills

Watch out for surprise stuff on other days.

Needless to say I wouldn’t be doing this blog without you – it’s thanks to you kind folks that I keep posting. And that means the blog’s really about you – about interaction, it’s about having a conversation. About cool stuff. About fun stuff. About serious stuff.

And if there’s something you’d like me to blog about – ask!

Let’s get talking.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: See above… ☺

Four top questions that sort of defy answers

Today I thought I’d share a few conundrums…

Matthew Wright1. Why is it that for the whole history of humanity, we’ve had no problem surviving on ordinary water. But in the last ten years we’ve only been able to survive with water-and-salt ‘hydration’ mixes sold for absurd prices in designer bottles?

2. Why do we have to buy ‘detox’ products and get pushed to go on ‘detox’ diets when we have functioning liver and kidneys?

3. How do astrologers get by now Pluto’s been demoted from planet status?

4. In 1555, the apothecary (pharmacist) Michel de Nostredam (Nostradamus) predicted the world would end in 1987. Why are we still here?

Thoughts?

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery and general blogging mayhem. Watch this space.

Bring me my interositer, pathetic Earthlings!

Anybody remember those cheesy alien movies from the fifties? Aliens with googly eyes and big heads arrive to steal women, steal Earth’s water, or both.

Needless to say, movies such as This Island Earth, I Married a Monster from Outer SpaceIt Came From Outer Space and Brain from Planet Aurus (which was about a brain from planet Aurus) had a good deal of fiction about them. Science? Uh…no…

Yes, I know science isn’t what they were about –  they played on our social fears as a device for lifting money at the box office, and as such were bedded in the human psycho-social framework

I thought I might be fun to run through the science in them anyway. Just for fun.

Anybody see a monolith go by? A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation - cool, free science software.

Anybody see a monolith go by? A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation – cool, free science software.

1. Aliens that look like humans
The thing about aliens is they’re alien. All Earth animals are built around the same basic plan, the tetrapod that flourished in the Devonian period – head, body, four limbs and (usually) a tail. But go back to the pre-Cambrian era and you find total weirdos, such as Edicarians. Some were so odd that paleontologists couldn’t even work out which way up they were meant to walk. And that’s just life on this planet. Now imagine life on another. I bet it won’t look like a human with a crustacean glued to its forehead (“yIqIm dude QIp tlhIngan. DaSovrup QuchDu’ lobster?”)

2. Aliens want human women
This trope was mostly about 1950s social fears. But as for the science of it – well, see (1). The chance of an alien being attracted to a human woman is about the same as an alien being attracted to oxalis. Or anything else from Earth. They’re alien. Harry Harrison riffed on it in one of his Stainless Steel Rat novels when his hero dressed up in a suit designed to look like one of the repellently squishy invaders – discovering, the hard way, that this was the height of alien pulchritude.

3. Aliens want Earth’s water
Why? We’re at the bottom of a gravity well. Also, we bite. There’s plenty of water for the taking in the Oort cloud, Kuiper belt and elsewhere. Hey – aliens might have been siphoning it for millions of years. We wouldn’t know. Or care.

4. Aliens are here to show us a better moral path
Laudable but silly. Even animals on Earth have a different moral path than humans – few, for instance, are motivated by conscious malice the way some humans are. Extrapolate that to aliens. The chance of them having world views that correct particular human failings, especially failings culture-specific to the West, is about the same as them wanting Earth’s women. See (2).

Ultimately the key word is alien. Would life on an alien world share our animal-plant split? Would alien evolution lead to a single species becoming intelligent? Would aliens become intelligent at all? Maybe they have many intelligent species. Would we even recognise their intelligence? The answer is ‘we don’t know’. Yet.

Of course that doesn’t stop us enjoying old movies. Or wondering about answers to these questions – which I hope you will. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Measuring lightspeed with custard, as soon as I get some photos. More writing tips. Watch this space.