Essential resources for internet culture

Last night we had some visitors (hooray! visitors!), both sociology professors (this happens when you move in certain social circles, it seems.)  And, as will happen when you put people who study sociology for a living in a room with people who studied sociology – and in my case anthropology – in school, we fell to talking about the various weird and wonderful ways that internet culture develops.

…Okay, sometimes just the weird ways.  But you get the idea.

The point is, eventually we ended up on the subject of cultural memes on the internet, how they develop, and how one can go about keeping pace with them.  We eventually whittled the essential resources down to:

  1. 4chan.

    I won’t link to this here, and I especially will not link to /b/ – let it not be said that I have led anyone down that particular path unawares.  However, it is true that 4chan in general and particularly /b/ serves as a kind of collective id for internet users – a stew of primordial thought-genes constantly colliding and combining with one another until finally one of them becomes strong enough to achieve escape velocity and appear on the internet at large as a meme.  (Hmm.  Some very mangled quasi-scientific metaphors there.  Ah well.  Somehow that seems appropriate in this case.)

    The thing about 4chan is that it is akin to the abyss.  If you gaze long into it, it gazes also into you.  And there is, occasionally, some very, very disturbing stuff on 4chan.   You must be prepared to accidentally encounter it if you brave that wilderness.

    If you’d like to learn more about 4chan without actually taking the plunge and going there, there’s always the convenient entry at That Wiki.

  2. Encyclopedia Dramatica.

    If you’ve just spotted something on Twitter, for example, and aren’t sure why the heck this seems to be so relevant to anyone, you could do worse than look up the mystery thing on Encyclopedia Dramatica.  Odds are good that you will find at least a little about the object of your interest there, along with a heaping helping of satire (and yes, very possibly trolling.)

    Be advised, of course, that ED is a parody of an encyclopedia, and treat information discovered there accordingly – as jumping-off point rather than definitive reference.

    Read more about Encyclopedia Dramatica at That Wiki.

  3. Know Your Meme.

    This meme database/video series is perhaps my personal favorite of the meme resources.  In addition to a spiffy little database of memes with origins and dates, there is also a series of charming little videos explaining selected memes, why some people find them funny, and where they come from.

    What’s especially awesome about these is that you can easily send videos explaining (for example) “Om nom nom” to your parents and they’re very likely to be able to get the idea, even if they don’t spend much time on the internet normally.  Couple that with high-quality video presentation and a friendly browsing environment and you have a winner.  Of course, the high production values mean that Know Your Meme isn’t quite as up to date as we might sometimes like – but it’s a small tradeoff, really, considering.

    Read about Know Your Meme at That Wiki.

  4. And, to a lesser extent, the mighty TV Tropes, of which we have already spoken.

Of course, none of these are Reference Resources in the academic sense, so I wouldn’t recommend using any of these for a research paper (unless of course you are doing so as primary sources!)  But they are good fun, and good ways to keep yourself posted on what the bizarre thing that just landed in your inbox is.  So go forth and explore.  (Just don’t say I didn’t warn you. ;))

On a mostly unrelated note, this smartphone app is genius: it turns your to-do list into a roleplaying game, awarding you points for every task you complete.  I love the idea, but feel it is rather tragic that I didn’t think of it first.

Character-driven storytelling with Primetime Adventures

Some time ago, because I am a very bad girl, I picked up a copy of the .pdf of the roleplaying game Primetime Adventures.  Today, I finally got around to reading it.

The Elevator Pitch

Primetime Adventures is a game where you and your friends work together to create a story in the style of a prime time TV show.

The Assessment

I like it.  Don’t know if I’ll ever play it, but even if I don’t, there is high-quality material to be mined from it no matter what system I’m playing in.

The Details

PTA is a pretty easy system to like.  It requires very little in the way of materials, setup, or prep time for the game master – odds are excellent that aside from the PTA rulebook you already have everything you need lying about in your house.  It’s also pretty much entirely genre-independent and will support any sort of story you care to dream up, provided that:

  • The story you want to tell includes strong character-driven elements and
  • You have the right group.

Having the right group is of course important for any game – and certainly reams of paper and piles of pixels have been devoted to the subject – but more than almost any other system I’ve ever looked at, PTA relies on your group’s ability to work together and compromise.   This begins at the very instant you make the decision to use the system – the first session of any campaign is always devoted to the pitch session, where the players work together to decide what genre and tone they would prefer and establish the length of your imaginary television show’s “season.”

After that, the players work together to create the ensemble cast that will populate the show, and work out what their character’s central issues and defining traits will be.   These traits can be called on to gain advantages and extra cards when the time comes to negotiate conflicts – but more on that in a moment.

Each session of PTA is an “episode,” naturally, and each episode proceeds in a very democratic sort of way.  A scene is proposed, the players work out the outlines of what the central conflicts will be, and these conflicts are played out as other players (and audience members if any) look on.  Conflict resolution is diceless, and relies on a standard deck of playing cards to determine both who will get the result they desire and who wins the right to narrate the scene.  The narrator will describe what happens, and you’re off to the races.  New scene, everyone!

Some of you might be thinking that this sounds like you spend a lot of time sitting around listening, and you would be right; in this sense PTA is probably not a game for impatient folks.  On the other hand, literally every moment of the game encourages contributions from other players to the action: players who are not participating in a scene can even spend some of their resources to tip the balance of a conflict they are watching in a direction they think is most interesting.  It’s not hard to imagine how some players would be put off having their story so heavily impacted by the peanut gallery – again, the key here is getting together a group of folks who don’t mind that sort of thing.

Whether you mean to actually play the game or not, however, the rulebook is well worth reading just for the very sound advice it gives on getting quickly to the core of how a character can contribute to dramatic situations (via his or her Issues) and how to identify and employ well-placed, satisfying narrative scenes in a collaborative medium.  This stuff is gold – no matter what system you’re playing, attention to details like these can very simply just make your game better.

Let’s pretend, for example, that you’re playing D&D.  D&D tends to be much more action-heavy than PTA, and tends to rely on the whims of the dice, rather than the metagame-level agreement of the players, to produce its narrative.   Sure, you’re not going to be plotting out your scenarios months in advance, but what if you’re planning a session that will really let one of your PCs shine?

You could do this overtly, by choreographing a grand set-piece battle – but you can also play some subtler tricks using the guidelines offered in PTA for characters in supporting roles and emphasize your featured PC’s conflicts and troubles by setting them in counterpoint to scenes or subplots involving other PCs.  You’re setting your rogue up for a confrontation with his father, poised even now to betray him?  You could play up the need to take care whom you trust by having your unworldly paladin encounter a devious con man – or really drive the knife home by setting your warlord up to depend on his former mentor in a time of desperate need.  When the mentor comes through and the father lets down the side, the contrast should make the drama of the situation all the more poignant.

This is the sort of thing PTA is designed to enable – using the conventions of well-told TV tales to punch up the character dramas that keep audiences tuning in every week.  It may not matter to the folks on the couch all that much what happens in the overarching Villain-of-the-Week plot…it’s the characters and the interactions between them that really keep the audience coming back.  And there is room for more of that in almost any game, regardless of genre or degree of rulesy crunch.

If You Only Read One Thing

Read the explanations of “Issue” and “Screen Presence” (pages 12-14), which will explain the basic mechanics of how a character-driven story arc works.  For bonus points, add in the basics of scene creation on pages 26-31.  Players and GMs alike can benefit from asking themselves what the scene they’re engaged in is really “about” and what it’s meant to play up.

If anyone out there has actually tried PTA, I’d be happy to know what they think.

Happy gaming, everybody.

Close, but not quite

Sometimes, one can learn the most interesting things when something doesn’t quite work.  Last weekend, during a D&D session, I was reminded of this.

First, a little background: Approximately a million years ago, I was an undergrad taking theatre courses.  I didn’t know whether I wanted to be an actor or a techie, but I knew I wanted to be involved; theatre was a kind of magic thing, and it had immense appeal for me.  I eventually came down on the techie side of the line: in the end the appeal of making things with my hands won out, and anyway my acting style was ill-suited for the stage.  I was neither big enough nor loud enough nor bold enough for The Industry, and that’s just fine.

I’m a pretty good acting match for the tabletop, if I do say so myself, with its mixture of collaborative storytelling and intimate scale.  A bit ironic, considering that the improv exercises were the ones I hated most in my formal acting classes.  In the D&D games I play in, there is a fair bit of improvisational acting, and while I adore it and am generally having a grand time, I sometimes find that the spectres of acting-class problems tend to come back to haunt me.

Here’s my little case study for the day: Every session of “Chosen” that we play opens with a flashback sequence, or a cutaway scene, which serves as a warm-up for everybody and typically stars one particular player character.   Last week, I was tapped to help out with making one of these work, and had some pre-session chat with our DM.

What I knew going into the session was:

  • I was going to be playing opposite the scene’s star
  • My character was to be under the influence of a supernatural entity.

The intended function of the scene: The starring PC gets to use the skills at which he is strongest (arcana, insight, and history) to resolve the problem, also showing our imaginary TV audience what he will do when confronted with a problem whose nature is mysterious to him and to which no obvious resolution was presented.

Sounds pretty cool, right?

This is the part where you’re expecting me to say “Well, it wasn’t; we totally failed.”  But while the scene didn’t work as planned, I don’t think it’s true that it was a failure, either.

What actually happened was that the DM gave us the expected setup – here is what our featured PC has been doing all day, here is what my character would normally be doing now – then turned to me and said “But today’s a little different.  What’s she doing when he gets home?”

Whoa.  Okay.  I had expected a tiny bit more direction than that – I didn’t even know what kind of thing I was supposed to be being influenced by! – but I made something up that seemed just a little bit weird, while not immediately suggesting any one particular kind of Ominous Nasty.  The featured PC bit.  So far, so good.

However, here is where things got interesting.  Once it became apparent that the character I was playing was quite literally not herself, the featured PC’s first response was to immediately go and find someone else rather than engage the problem himself at all.  (Something that had not been reckoned with in the original prospectus for the scene.)

This is where I point out that Jonathan is a very good DM, capable at most things and outstanding in several (his encounter designs and NPC portrayals in particular are excellent and everyone enjoys them.)  However, life does have a habit of getting hairy on occasion, and on this particular week there had been less time to prepare than usual…and on this occasion, it was plain he hadn’t had time to prepare and was suffering a bit of a deer-in-headlights moment.  Happens to everybody.

This is a particularly interesting improvisational challenge in an RPG setting.  In D&D one of the many functions served by the DM is the directing of scenes – he or she will try to pick things up when they’re dragging, or gently make suggestions as to things that might occur to the characters that the players might not be picking up on.   They are the players’ eyes and ears in the world, as well, and have the final say on what is and isn’t so in the world you’re playing in.  What this means is that unlike a traditional improv setting, where pretty much anyone can add anything to the mix…if you’re improving in a D&D scene, you’re working with at least a semi-structured universe in which one person knows What’s Really Going On at any given time and the things you try to introduce may or may not be viable components for that narrative.

However, at this moment, nobody was at the wheel, and the sensors had, so to speak, shut down.  I wasn’t precisely sure who or what I was supposed to be, or where the scene was ultimately supposed to go, and the other player wasn’t sure what to do, and the person who usually serves as arbiter of these things was looking at me and asking “Okay, what happens now?”

It was exactly that moment from acting class where you are playing a two-person scene and your partner is not giving you anything to play off of, and you have the feeling that someone really must do something, right now.  And you realize suddenly that it is probably going to have to be you.

Well, all right then.  There wasn’t enough urgency in the scene, so I tried to make some by inventing some additional strange actions for my character to take, and other players jumped in to suggest courses of action to the featured PC’s player.  I continued frantically making things up until suddenly enough of a narrative coalesced for me that I was able to give the entity’s behavior some internal consistency (for myself, anyway) and kind of nudge the scene to a natural conclusion on my own.

Here is the funny thing.  The scene was not precisely a success, in that it didn’t really achieve the goal of providing a setpiece for the featured PC.  I suspect this may have been in part because of a mismatch between the design of it and the preferences of the featured PC’s player – I don’t know that he is especially fond of operating alone in scenarios where the “rules” of what is going on (so to speak) are not quickly apparent.  And of course it could have been much improved by additional input from the DM as we went, but that is, as I have said, not really his fault.

On the other hand…it wasn’t a failure, either.  We still ran a scene that had a beginning, a middle, an end, and an internally consistent narrative, and I got through the whole thing without having any real idea of who I was supposed to be or how all this would fit into the plot at large.  That has to constitute an achievement of some kind.  There is even a teasing little nugget of mystery in it that we can pick up and improve on later: what really DID happen there?

I think what was most interesting about this for me, though, is that for a minute there I was doing a number of things that DMs usually do.  And no, I wasn’t expecting to have to do it when I got to the session that day.  And yes, it was kind of scary trying to do it myself.  But you know, it wasn’t as bad as all that.

It’s certainly gotten me thinking.  Perhaps it really isn’t as bad as you think, not knowing what you’re supposed to do.

Lesson learned: Be ready to back up the other players, even and especially the GM, by giving them something – anything – to pick up and run with.  If they don’t pick it up, try again – but be thinking of a graceful exit strategy, just in case.

Where have you been?

The short answer is:  Away.

The longer answer is that I have been doing a number of things pertaining to a) finishing my graduate school and b) hunting for a job.  (Still working on the latter, though I have also been volunteering, freelancing, and otherwise doing my best to keep busy while I am on the hunt.)

Some of these things may be of interest to you, Internet, such as the massive project I did on Weird Tales magazine for my rare books class – but that will have to be saved for a day when I have more time to spend typing. 🙂

In the meantime, though, I would like to share with you one of the other things I have been doing while I was away.  Brace yourselves, because it is very, very nerdy.

Are you braced?  Good.  Then here it is:

I have (re)discovered tabletop roleplaying.

People who read Rampant Bicycle in its former incarnation may not be so surprised by this news – I have, after all, been an eager reader and collector of roleplaying sourcebooks for many years.  Prior to the fall of 2008, I had only ever played four sessions, however – of D&D 3.5, set in Eberron.  (I played a bard.  And the DM had to move to Cleveland just as the plot was ramping up and now I will never know how it would have ended.  Gyah!)

In the fall of 2008, though, my friend Jonathan rounded up a number of us and said “Hey, D&D is coming out with a fourth edition, and I’d like to give it a try…”

We did.

His idea was for a campaign in which all the player characters were teenagers – the youngest 15, the oldest perhaps 19 years old.   Sort of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Dungeons and Dragons experience.  There would be comedy.  There would be angst.  There would be strivings against impossible odds and all the other fun stuff that goes along with playing a young hero.  We would enthusiastically steal borrow from the great stories we knew and loved, and add our own embellishments as we went.

And we have.

We came up with an interestingly mixed group of characters.  My husband plays a human scion of a local noble house, ill at ease with the destiny that birth seems to have laid out for him.  (Mechanically, a warlord.)  We have an elf ranger (classic, no?) with a terrible case of amnesia, who is slowly unearthing his memories as the campaign proceeds.  We have a dragonborn of a most unusual color, who also happens to be a paladin of Bahamut with a uniquely personal relationship to his god.  And we have an orphaned brother-sister pair of eladrin (think Tolkien’s high elves or the Fair Folk of Irish lore): the older brother is our wizard, sardonic and aloof, and the younger sister (me) has spent much of her life on the street, doing whatever work she can to help make ends meet.  (Yes, she can pick locks.  So what?  She’s not a thief, thank you.)

Almost two years later, this campaign is still running.  One of the characters above has turned out to be married. One has suffered a grievous, disfiguring injury.  One has manifested a magical wild talent of which they are still unaware.  One is being threatened by mysterious forces from Beyond.  One of them has committed adultery.  And one may or may not have gone a bit mad.

This is all me doing that thing you’re not supposed to do, of course – one of the great geek faux pas is to ramble on in an overlong sort of way about your characters or your campaign.  However, this I will say:

It is a funny thing how one can go a very long time without a certain something in one’s life without really realizing what one is missing.  I had gone a very long time without much in the way of creative outlets – I enjoy my knitting, yes, but typically follow patterns, and most of the writing I had done for the last two years was of the very useful but scholarly sort.  When I started playing tabletop games again it was as though my eight-year-old self had been sitting in a room on her own for several hundred years waiting for somebody to come along and play with her…and I’d just opened the door, poked my head into the room, and said “Hey.  Want to come build a blanket fort?”

Glee and delight all around.

I’m lucky to be in a group of fantastically creative people, all of whom are mature enough to be able to incorporate difficult content into a roleplaying session sensitively.  We’re all a bit crazy, and that’s okay.  I love my geek friends, and look forward to getting together to roll dice and pretend to be somebody else once every couple of weeks.

In a later post I’ll talk a little bit about why I like fourth edition D&D – and I do like it from a mechanical perspective, quite a lot.  For today, though, Internet, I am just going to be completely self-indulgent here and share something else with you…

Our campaign has a wiki.  This means that if you are so inclined you can read more about the characters we’re playing – or, if you are feeling truly curious, there is a complete episode guide available where you can read the entire story of the campaign so far in downloadable chunks.  (They gave the aspiring librarian with vague writerly leanings the responsibility of keeping the campaign journal.  This is either awesome or terrifying or both depending on your inclinations.)  Early sessions tend to be a bit patchy in their representation, since I was having to type and play at the same time, and while my typing speed is nothing to shake a stick at it’s just not up to keeping track of the conversation for six – sometimes seven – people.  However, by the time you get to around session 16 we have started recording our sessions for later transcription, which means that the quality improves substantially; a typical set of session notes now lies somewhere between a TV script and a novel with commentary.

There be dragons, of course.  (Literally.)

More later, but now it is time to go out and buy provisions.