Introducing Born to the Blade

Hi folks! I’m very happy to bring you something I’ve been working on for a long time and had to keep under my hat until now.

I’m working with Serial Box on Born to the Blade, an epic fantasy serial with co-writers Malka OlderCassandra Khaw, and Marie Brennan. I’m the creator and lead-writer on the team, and the series is releasing in April.

Born to the Blade is like Avatar the Last Airbender meets The West Wing–with magic sword duels

In Born to the Blade, a desperate ambassador, a conflicted loyalist, and a brash duelist will help determine the fate of nations with spell and steel.

You can subscribe to the series here: https://www.serialbox.com/serials/borntotheblade.

Here’s how Serial Box works. If you’re a subscriber, you get both the ebook and audio edition of each episode automatically every week as they release for one discounted price. Serial Box also has a specialized app where you can seamlessly switch between reading and listening.

We just have a placeholder page for Born to the Blade right now, but there’s more information coming. You can go ahead and subscribe to the series now if you’re interested.

I’ll have more information on the series soon, along with the Promonado (TM) that will accompany the release.

Confusion 2018

This weekend I will be returning to Confusion, which is a great con to kick off the year. Here’s my programming schedule!
Friday
1pm – Isle Royale
Co-Writing For Fun and Profit
4pm – Isle Royale
Collaborating With Your Copyeditor
5pm – Interlochen
World-building Culture Beyond Aesthetics
Saturday
12pm – Keweenaw
Reading: Merrie Haskell, Michael R. Underwood, Mishell Baker
4pm – St. Clair
Autograph Session (4 PM)
Come meet your favorite authors, artists and musicians and have them sign things! (Please limit your signing requests to 3 items per person.)
5pm – Keweenaw
Disney Rules Genre Film
If you’ll be at the con, please feel free to say hello! When I’m not on programming, I’ll be hanging around in the common areas.

Wherin I Heap Love Upon Blades in the Dark

After reading Austin Walker‘s comments over the weekend (read the whole thread), I dipped back into the tabletop RPG Blades in the Dark. Reading the game, I was struck again at what a fabulous accomplishment it is. Every page and section makes me want to play the game.

As Walker indicates, each chapter has Questions to Consider, and the entire text of the game does a great job of drawing back the curtain regarding how the game fits together. The creator John Harper invites the reader to step up to become a co-designer of Blades in the Dark as they’ll play it. Everyone’s version of a given game is different, and Harper doesn’t shy away from that reality.

You might have heard me talk about Blades before, as I got in on the game early in the Kickstarter and have been a vocal fan ever since even though I haven’t gotten to play the game yet.

Blades in the Dark is set in an industrial fantasy city called Duskvol, a trade city in a world that suffered a magical apocalypse a thousand years ago. That event shattered the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead and now the known world is ruled by an immortal emperor and cities are protected from hungry spirits roaming free across the world by giant magitek electrical fences. The tone and flavor of the setting are conveyed throughout the core book, with hooks abounding and a clear manifestation of the default grim tone of the setting in the writing. The game is designed not just for telling the tales of daring scoundrels, it’s designed for telling tales of daring scoundrels *in this particular world*. It’s very much gothic dark fantasy ala the Dishonored and Thief video games (both specifically invoked as inspirations for Blades).

I prefer more optimistic worlds and games, especially these days (*waves to 2017*), so I’m also excited for the Broken Crown, a playset about trying to take down the Immortal Emperor, and other alternate setting playsets. Especially Null Vector, the cyberpunk playset. Blades is an amazing game for Cyberpunk because Blades is designed to drastically reduce the amount of planning a group has to do for heists. I have a sad memory of spending over two hours arguing with a game group about how to pull off a kidnapping in Shadowrun, and in Blades that conversation would have been five minutes deciding which general approach to take and then we’d have gotten right into the action.

Thinking back to the way tone informs the design, I’m hoping to see these playsets to adjust the mechanics in order to convey the setting’s tone. If they don’t, I’ll need to do it myself, but I’m hoping that the transparency of how the tone is built into the design means that a change in setting comes with an adjustment in the design tone.

I have spent more than a little time thinking about how I’d hack Blades in the Dark to make a Shield and Crocus RPG. I even have a working title: War in the Bones.

Fun Side Notes

  • The game’s publisher, Evil Hat Productions, has given an open invitation to designers who intend to make hacks of Blades in the Dark (new games using the system/design) to submit to them. This is likely to help foster a new family of RPGs the way that Apocalypse World became a games lineage with games like Dungeon World, Monsterhearts, Monster of the Week, etc. Blades is heavily informed by Apocalypse World but is, IMO, a full iteration forward compared to the above hacks.
  • I love that hacks of Blades in the Dark are called “Forged in the Dark” like Apocalypse World hacks are “Powered by the Apocalypse.”

I don’t get to play nearly as many RPGs as I want or even as much as I did before I started working at Angry Robot, but I still love delving into new games to see where the discipline of RPG design is headed. Anyone similarly interested needs to be following Blades in the Dark.

UBI: Work, Purpose, and the Worth of Human Life

A big thing that I think can get lost in discussions of Universal Basic Income (UBI) is the way that UBI allows for a re-definition of how we think about work, purpose, and the worth of human life. Especially UBI combined with a universal healthcare system uncoupled from full-time work.

  • UBI allows the homemaker that raises children to be valued for their contributions for more than the money you save on daycare. It lets the caretaker parent be more involved in their children’s lives.
  • UBI allows the twenty-year-old that has to drop out of college or trade school to take care of an elderly or sick family member or other loved one and can’t work regular hours to be able to get by and do that critical labor.
  • UBI allows the aspirant creator to dedicate themselves to improving their craft without needing a menial job to make ends meet. How much faster could a new musician become experienced and skilled enough to play professionally if they don’t have to work 40 hours a week in an office job to get buy?
  • UBI means that if you’re a writer, you wouldn’t necessarily need to have a “real” job to get by. You could be a writer that also teaches storytelling to kids. Or a writer that helps out at their church or local school. Or a writer that provides for their family by cooking wonderful home-cooked meals? Those are all ways of contributing, and in a functional UBI system, they can all be supported and valued.

UBI means that we can continue the trend of letting people spend more of their time on hobbies, civic engagement, caretaking, enjoying life, and being fulfilled. There’s a strong cultural dictate that says that life has worth because of work and “contribution to society.” Thanks, Protestant Work Ethic and/or Capitalism. In the US/Developed nations, we were trending toward people having more and more leisure time, because productivity was increasing due to improved tools, better systems, etc. But wages didn’t keep pace with productivity.

In a UBI system, everyone benefits from increased productivity and efficiency. The office administrator can work 20 hours a week and still keep everything flowing. They can use the other 20 hours a week to spend more time with their family and friends and to develop their passion for painting or volunteer at a local community center. And so on.

I think it’s very important to consider and get excited about the ways self-fulfillment and ideation are a contribution to society. Why do we value work at a job you don’t care about as being more important to societal well-being than taking care of family and/or playing music at a faith center or teaching kids how to draw with crayons or running an after-school program and on and on? Capitalism is the thing that values selling your labor for the good of people that own systems of production. Capitalism is not inevitable. It is not intrinsic to humanity.

What is intrinsic is our community orientation. We’re social animals. We need physical touch and shelter and the chance to continually discover who we are as people more than we need to labor for someone else’s profit. We need sunlight and physical activity and love far more than we need a job title and quarterly reports.

If you’re a happier, more whole, more fulfilled person, you’ll be a better friend, neighbor, partner, etc. A better citizen.

This, for me, is one of the biggest, most important things about UBI. It allows us to move humanity forward past a scarcity mindset into an abundance mindset. It can strengthen civic society. Family ties. Political engagement. And on and on.

This is the future I am fighting for. A future where living a fulfilling life is the priority more than selling your time to survive. We don’t have to live in a subsistence, scraping-by paradigm anymore. We can all live better.

Disclaimers and answers to expected questions:

  • Of course no system is perfect. UBI would have to be very carefully implemented to not just re-create or enhance various systems of inequality.
  • Yes, I am a hippie utopianist. That’s my whole deal. That’s what being a speculative fiction writer means to me: imagining better possibilities.
  • No, this won’t lead to a huge % of the population just being leeches on society. See the resources below.

Further reading on UBI, including a variety of perspectives:

Studies on UBI
UBI pilot program in Kenya
UBI in Ontario, Canada
The Alaska Permanent Fund
The Conservative Case for UBI”
UBI in Finland
“The Wrong Kind of UBI”
Universal Basic Assets
“UBI: The Answer to Automation?”

Gratitude

Today I am grateful to every person that rose to the challenge this year. Mostly in the US because that’s where most of my friends live, but everywhere, really. Here I’m going to mostly speak about the USA, but I know that what happens here impacts people everywhere.

I’m grateful for people that called/wrote/faxed their elected representatives. For people that protested at airports or in the streets or at the capital. That marched or filled a town hall to demand action. To the people that donated to candidates they believe in, who energized, encouraged, and educated their fellow citizens.

I am grateful for the fact that when a thoroughly unworthy corrupt bigot took the office of the presidency he was met not just by his adoring public, but by a loud chorus of patriotic opposition, by marches around the world filled with people that made their voices heard and found one another.

I’m grateful for civil servants that refused to follow unjust orders. For people that stepped up to run for office, wanting to make the system work better, to fight for their neighbors and the future.

I’m grateful for the fact that even in this year that has been so long, so hard, and so dispiriting, there is still hope. And that hope is you all. I have hope because I know we are not alone.

It may get worse before it gets better, but we can do this.

Giant Spiders, the Action Economy, and Your Game

Last session, my D&D party had a great RP-driven evening, having just survived a huge throwdown with a fiend-controlled Arch-druid, a humongo spider, and a zillion spiderlings.

That fight is what I wanted to talk about today. I really like 5e’s Legendary action system. I think it’s a great way to address the primacy of action economy in the game.

What’s an action economy?

It’s the idea that in a tactical combat game, having more actions is a huge advantage. In earlier versions of D&D, a 5-person party vs. a dragon instantly had the advantage if the dragon only got one action per round, even if they got claw/claw/bite.

In the recent X-Com games, you want to get the upgrade that lets you bring a fifth squad member into missions as soon as possible, as it gives you more actions per turn. Having a fifth person is an advantage aside from that, but what I want to focus on right now is the actions. Who has them, how many, and when?

In this case, the spider got a Legendary Action (mostly webbing and biting) and the Lair Actions involved birthing new spiders to throw at us (ala spawning mobs/adds in a raid).

The Legendary/Lair Actions made the combat feel much less in our control, systematized the rate of new monsters coming in, and made the boss feel like a Boss.

The last boss we fought before the spider was a powerful necromancer who had been built up over several sessions as A Big Deal. But then, our party totally overwhelmed him, esp. thanks to our Smite-tastic vengeance Paladin and having several spell-casters who could counter-spell and use Dispel Magic. Even with undead minions around, the necromancer just didn’t have the opportunity to really put the pressure on us or keep away from our DPS. Legendary Actions would have changed that a lot. They become less special if every notable enemy has them, but maybe that’s okay?

The Ruler Reactions in the X-Com 2 expansion are a similar system, whereby the Ruler characters (special unique bosses) get a Ruler Reaction after every one of your characters acts. This means they can move around, punish characters that move out into the open, etc. Being able to interrupt and/or act out of turn is a *huge* tactical asset in turn-based games. The Chosen characters in the War of the Chosen expansion don’t get Ruler Reactions, but they do have a large # of actions per turn, allowing them to move in, attack, and then retreat to cover, etc. Some of your characters get similar bonus actions, especially the Skirmisher. Having all of those active at once could get tricky, but it re-shapes the flow of play, making it far less a game of big chunks of “my turn, their turn” and much more of a fast-paced thrust/parry/riposte kind of game.

Anyone else been playing D&D with Legendary/Lair Actions or have stories of Rulers/Chosen from X-Com to share? Or other games that use the same kind of systems?

 

Solipsism and Celebrities

  • The 80s saw, for example: Call of Cthulhu (81), Paranoia (84), Ars Magica (87), d6 Star Wars (87), Cyberpunk 2013 (88), Shadowrun (89).
  • The 90s brings the World of Darkness, Torg, Amber, Underground, Blue Planet, 7th Sea, Aberrant
  • In the 2000s you get the Forge/Story Games movement (Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard, etc.), D&D 3.0, the OGL, etc.
  • And in the 2010s we have Apocalypse World and Powered by the Apocalypse games, RPG Kickstarters, Tons of anniversary editions of old RPGs (WoD 20th anniversary editions, 7th Sea 2.0, etc.), Pathfinder’s rise, D&D 5e, Critical Role, Roll20, etc.

Where’s the stagnation in there? I see mechanical innovation, troupe play, bridging across to other genre influences, acting techniques, roleplay theory, scene framing, etc.. And that was just a short thread overview of a way more complicated and nuanced tradition.

It’s okay to say “I got bored with RPGs, but since video games have become so much their own thing, I got excited about RPGs again.”

It’s also sensible to say that technological innovation with streaming and podcasts enabled RPGs to become an outward-facing art form and that Podcasts of Acquisitions, Inc. PAX events, and streaming games like Critical Role turned small group experiences into shared experiences. Yeah, for sure. You don’t get The Adventure Zone or Friends at the Table being A Thing without the rise of podcasts.

Roll20, Skype, & other systems let people re-connect with childhood friends to play across a continent or play w/people they’ve never met. *Raises hand* That’s me. Playing a Roll20 D&D game with old SCA friends and their friends.

There was this trend in confessional gamer memoirs in the 2000s where the white male gamer waxes rhapsodic about loving RPGs as a kid, about how it was this secret only he and his friends knew about and appreciated. But then he “discovered” girls, went to college, and/or “grew up” and cast RPGs aside, only to re-discover his love for them later, returning not just with nostalgia, but with renewed appreciation. Harmon’s bit seems like this, but probably across a different life path. It’s okay to have left and come back, but RPGS were always here.

WoD (World of DarknesS) and esp. Mind’s Eye Theater enabled women to claim space in RPGing that had been largely denied. Women & people from other marginalized populations/identities have always played RPGs, but World of Darkness and its LARPs were a major vector by which even more people got into RPGs, continuing to shift the balance away from the straight white male perceived monolith.

Yes, this is a golden age of RPGing, but it’s not because of video games. Video games & Tabletop RPGs have evolved in tandem, borrowing back and forth from one another, but tabletop is not a symbiote thriving only because of video games.

Do better, Dan Harmon. Like it or not, you’re seen as a major name in RPGs now because of HarmonQuest. Do right by the community people see you as representing. You need to roll better on your Save vs. Be That Guy.

P.S. Shout-out to SF writer John Appel for strong contributions to this original twitter thread.

Baltimore Book Festival 2017

This week I’ll be participating in the Baltimore Book Festival as part of the SFWA pavilion.

I’ll be there mostly on Friday and Sunday, spending some time on Saturday to see folks at the Comicon.

Here’s my full BBF schedule:

Friday

12PM – The Business of Writing
Let our panel answer your questions about the business side of writing. Whether you’re a curious reader or a new writer, our panelists will discuss how they got started, how to keep going, and other tips and traps of the industry.

Authors: Kate Baker, Sarah Pinsker, Bud Sparhawk, Bill Campbell, Michael R. Underwood

2PM – Pitches & Queries: How I Sold My Book
SF/F authors talk about how they got their agent or book deal, and how they crafted attention-getting queries.

Authors: Addison Gunn, Arkady Martine, K.M. Szpara, Michael R. Underwood. Moderator: KM Szpara

5PM – When Genres Collide! What happens when you mix SF and mystery, or fantasy and romance?
From robot detectives to demon lovers, literature is full of genre mashups. Let’s talk about where mysteries and SF/F and romance and literature all collide.

Authors: Anatoly Belilovsky, Marianne Kirby, Paul Levinson, Sunny Moraine, Michael R. Underwood. Moderator: Jon Skovron

 

Saturday

12PM – Signing: Carrie DiRisio and Michael R. Underwood

3PM – Where is Westeros: Secondary Worlds in SF & Fantasy
We’re not in Kansas anymore – or on Earth, for that matter. Our authors discuss how they create new worlds, whether they’re through the looking glass or in a galaxy far far away. Step through the wardrobe and into a whole new read.

Authors: Jamie Lackey, Erin Roberts, Lawrence M. Schoen, Vivian Shaw, Michael R. Underwood. Moderator: Scott H. Andrews

 

Sunday

1PM – Dangerous Voices Variety Hour Presents Daniel Jose Older and Sam. J Miller
A fast-paced quiz show in the vein of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me! brought to you by the Baltimore Science Fiction Society. Win free books and learn things you never knew about your favorite authors.

Authors: Sarah Pinsker & Michael R. Underwood host guests Daniel Jose Older and Sam J. Miller.

Light a Candle

Things have been pretty scary the past few weeks, even within the hard year that 2017 has been. We had a family health scare just a little while ago (all better now), plus the ongoing garbage fire that is US politics.

So I wanted to spend a bit of time focusing on things that have been bringing joy and light into my life, in case these things could do the same for you. At the bottom, I list some resources I’ve been using to stay up to date on politics with a minimum of hassle/frustration.

Sources of Joy

One of the things I do to relax is listening to podcasts. I started listening to podcasts over ten years ago when I was out in Oregon doing my M.A. in Folklore. Back then, the only show I listened to was Mur Lafferty’s I Should Be Writing. These days, I’m a part of two podcasts and subscribe to many more. The two below have been particularly helpful for me this summer:

Friends at the Table – A marvelous actual-play tabletop role-playing game podcast with great players, engrossing worlds, and amazing music by composer Jack de Quidt (who is also one of the players). The current season Twilight Mirage is especially engrossing, telling the tale of a far-future utopia in crisis.

Waypoint Radio – The home podcast of video game website Waypoint. They focus less on giving games scores and more on story structure, design, and the political dimensions of games. They sometimes also talk politics (esp. labor and health policy) and are clear and open in their progressive leanings.

When I’m not listening to podcasts, I am often chilling out with my wife watching TV or watching something in the background while I work on this or that. Here are some shows and video series that have brought me joy the past few months:

DuckTales – The original show was one of my favorite cartoons as a kid, and the 2017 remake on DisneyXD is very amusing so far. I am a total sucker for anything that plays in the ‘modern multi-genre pulp’ mode where mummies and vampire and Atlantis and so on are all real.

Breakfast & Battlegrounds – This is a video series on Waypoint comprised of recordings of the game Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds. Breakfast & Battlegrounds is complete with a (funny, loose) continuity, special music (boat jazz!) and fun special guests. Austin & Patrick from Waypoint play as father & son team Crowbar & Sickle, in search of the elusive Chicken Dinner of victory. The most fun I’ve had watching a video game in some time.

Killjoys – A fun, sexy, space-based action-adventure series which starts with great episodic stories and builds to a cool metaplot. The showrunner is the same as the urban fantasy series Lost GirlKilljoys is about a pair of space-age bounty hunters called Killjoys who travel The Quad (four planet/moons bound together by a corporate-owned government).

And of course, since I’m a gamer, here’s a recent game I loved playing:

Pyre – The new game from Supergiant Games, who created Bastion and Transistor. It’s a cool fantasy combination of a visual novel/choose your own adventure and a magical sports game. The biggest draw for me in this game is the cool characters and their evolving relationships with one another. Also, you can complete a play-through in about 10-12 hours.

Podcasts
Pod Save America
 – Ex-Obama staffers break down the news and snark along the way. Unabashedly Democrat-leaning & progressive, a bit bro-y, though not gross.
Pod Save The People – Activist Deray Mckesson provides a grassroots view on politics, with a strong focus on the impact to and organizing by communities of color.

Website
What The Fuck Just Happened Today? – Trump-focused digest of American political news.

A Break in the Clouds

I was shocked and relieved this morning to see that the latest ACA repeal effort failed last night. McCain came through for America in surprisingly actually sort of keeping his word from his much-lauded speech. More laudable are Senators Collins and Murkowski for sticking to their principles, and the entire Dem Senate caucus for their unified opposition to this parade of successively more terrible bills presented in ever-more-terrible fashion.

Most deserving of praise are the people of the USA. Everyone who called, emailed, faxed, wrote, rallied, marched, protested, and made their voices heard. The heroes at ADAPT deserve a special shout-out for their visible, powerful direct actions, as well as groups like Planned Parenthood, Indivisible, MoveOn, and more.

This is a big victory, and we should celebrate it. I don’t doubt that McConnell will try again, but we can win again, like we’ve won three times now in the Senate.

While we’re energized, let’s make sure to speak up in defense of and solidarity with our LGBTQIA countrypeople, especially trans countrypeople, who are being targetted by the president and his cartoonish racist asshole of an Attorney General. I will be making calls to push back on the President’s attack on the ability of trans people to participate in the armed services, and to oppose the re-interpretation of Title VII being made in order to exclude LGBTQIA people from civil rights protection.

Here’s a breakdown of the events of last night.

And information about the attacks on LGBTQIA rights.

Trans people in the armed services
Title VII