Baby Steps

I’m a theater person by training and by nature. In producing theater, there are two phases of work for the actor: table work, and standing work. Table work is, as the name implies, sitting at a table. Here’s where you discuss the world of the play, the characters, their motivations, and so on.

When everyone kind of has a clear understanding of what’s going on, you move to standing work. Standing work is where actors do the blocking and interaction; technical designers shuffle off to their work areas to design the set or the lights or the sound.

It’s been my experience that the sooner a production gets to standing work, the sooner “real work” begins. As an introvert, specifically a “rational,” I like to live in my head. So long as I don’t physically do anything, what lives in my head is perfect—and where it’s imperfect, it’s editable.

Without forcing myself to, I’d never actually open the editor. I’d sit here and vomit ideas after ideas onto the page and leave them there. Last night, however, I stepped out of my comfort zone.

I opened up the editor and made a Content Pack.

The first thing I encountered was a problem. On Mac, which I am unfortunately bound to, I can’t get the correct pathing to set the content pack dependencies to the existing ones in the game. After a couple workaround attempts, I finally just copied all the existing Content Packs over to Documents/Shadowrun Dragonfall/ContentPacks. It means I’m sitting on a 1.37 GB copy of a bunch of stuff on a hard drive that’s more stuffed than a Kentucky family at a Golden Corral, but I’ll suffer it out and delete some old shit to make room for it if I have to.

I diddled around a bit only to discover that I’d totally forgotten the basics of room design in the editor—about how to make corners and stuff, so I went back and re-watched the interior map design tutorial to find out what I was doing wrong. I was looking for corner pieces when you have to make them (silly me).

The nice thing is, as a long-time Dwarf Fortress player, the concept of room design isn’t alien to me, though I’m sure I’ll encounter troubles going from top-down to isometric, but a lot of these problems are addressed. The most fascinating thing for me, as I floated around the Drogenkippe level editor from Dragonfall, was that the rooms were so oddly large—no 3×3 bedrooms like I’d be giving my dwarves, I’m afraid! So, scale is going to be something funky for a while, and chances are I’m going to beg, borrow, and steal designs until I get confident enough working on my own.

What’s Up, New Orleans?

I think I’m going to put “big concept New Orleans meta-story” on the backburner for now. And not actually abandon it temporarily like most people’s “backburners” function—I mean I’m going to design stuff perhaps for later integration, but my goal isn’t to make something with the explicit intent of making it N’awlinz. At least, yet.

I just want to know that I can design a run. So I’m going to steal a run from real life that’s been floating around again recently, called “What’s Up, Hong Kong?”

The concept of the run is simple: Team Shadowrunner needs to climb to the top of [target tower] and hack the electronic billboard to display a message. Now, whether this is Mr. Johnson hiring them for a subtle corporate attack or just a team of joyriding gangers is up to me, the writer. And I’ll decide that later.

I’m going to design probably the standard 3 floors, but also have a c&p staircase, about 5 iterations, each about 5×5 (though realistically, 7×7, because I do not yet understand scale) just to get that sense of climbing lots of stairs. 2 floors may be the “lobby” and “landing” areas, and then floor 3 is the “roof” but I don’t know how well Dragonfall’s tilesets do skyscraper rooftops—that was a big thing with Hong Kong. So I may need to make it “top floor” instead of roof. We’ll see.

Anyways. I’ve got the editor open, so I’m going to hop over there and get to work.

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The Pitch

How about that presidential debate, amirite?

Man, Trump is—if nothing else—just a glorious fount of villainous inspiration. I mean, both candidates can be, when you pull specific qualities out of them. Seriously, how perfect a Big Bag could one make by merging Clinton’s shady persona of perfection and Trump’s outright “braggadocio”?

Let’s talk about the meta-story:

Instead of making the big bad actively try to accomplish some horrifically vile deed, team shadowrunner is going to take a more active stance in ridding the world of an evil.

In Frozen Synapse, the impetus for fighting against Enyo:Nomad is that they’ve become the dictators of Markov Geist. Charon’s Palm has learned and subsequently instructed the people of E:N on how to basically rig elections, control the populace, so on and so forth, all of the removal of freedoms that represent the height of villainy in cyberpunk literature. The fight between our fixer and the Big Bad CEO is deeply personal, but also represents the war of ideals—the freedom and anarchy of the shadowrunners and the security and stasis of the corp. Obviously, we know where Team Shadowrunner should stand.

What we need, however, is to raise the stakes for the player.

In Dragonfall, the protagonists came to believe that a dragon was after them, at first, and only later realized that the intent was to release it on the world, but by then the motivation became personal with the murder of Paul Amsel. In Hong Kong, there was the double-threat of the APB and the Yama King looming over the players.

However, for right now, I’ve got nothing. Threatening the players’ lives directly is too easy. So, backburner for now.

Regardless, the story concludes when the fixer and the corp “face” reunite and have it off with one another while Team Shadowrunner faces off against corp’s personal guard or what not. In a big fucking tower—because yes. Dragonfall and Hong Kong both have their final fights in the dirt, so I’m going to go up. Rooftop fight for the finale.

I want there to be a feeling of change or transformation.

One thing I liked about a couple of the UGC stories I’ve played is that the safehouse isn’t static. I think Mercurial pulled it off pretty well, but I think the jump from flophouse to Maria Mercurial’s pad was a bit too sudden and a bit to staggering. I really like in Grand Theft Auto games, specifically 3 and Vice City, how there’s basically a 3-tier system.

I’d like to give the player the impression that they’re moving up in the world. The first few runs should be…not “easy-peasy” but they should feel small and basic and have smaller payouts than later runs. Maybe even “side jobs” for other shadowruns. Like, say a “bigger run” needs a van stolen; it’s up to the player to go out and steal it. But in the course of the run one of the “main” runners goes down or doesn’t make the meet and the player has to step up, which earns them street cred.

This isn’t a place the players should linger long—2 runs, 3 at most, and then they “graduate” to a better pad, maybe a more connected Fixer.

So, let’s break this down to one or two paragraphs. A pitch.

The year is 2057. The city of New Orleans is always changing. Goods come and go, and people die. And yet, the world just keeps on turning. New Orleans has always been a smuggler’s haven, a place where friends are cheap and the music is loud. The streets are cacophony of howling brass and the whispers of scandal, best enjoyed with a Sazerac on the side.

While others fled to the runner havens in Seattle, Chicago, or elsewhere, there was something in the siren song of New Orleans. Work is good, when your Fixer can keep his head above the bar. But you know there’s opportunity out there, waiting for the right runner to come by and snatch it. And if you can dodge the corps and the bullets and the occasional storm, well, maybe you can make a career in the shadows of the Big Easy.

Bleh. It’s generic, but it’ll work for now. It doesn’t touch on the Big Bad in any meaningful way. But hey, it’s a starting point. That’s what I was looking for.

Prewriting

It’s less than 24 hours after my first post and I’m already feeling that crushing sense of doubt. That whole, “this is too big for me, too much for me; I’ll never get this done. How do people do this?” sensation. I didn’t sleep well. Kept seeing battle scenes and stuff playing out in my head; don’t know if it’s anxiety. I don’t feel anxious, but here I am. So I’m writing. Even if I’m not making forward progress, I’ll keep doing something more than nothing.

Here’s a little motivational comic to get things started.

Taking Stock

Let’s look at the available resources, since we don’t have many.

New Orleans on the Shadowrun wiki — there’s not a lot here, but there’s enough. The list of corp influence is the big one; those guys are going to be what make up the primary Johnsons and antagonists of the story. One of them’s going to have to be singled out as the “big bad”. At the current stage, I’m planning on setting the story before present-day 5th edition, which is somewhere in the 2070s, I believe. As with the other SRR games, this is going to be closer to 2055, meaning I can even delve back a little farther and canonize the rise of one of the corps. The other big thing to take away is the stuff on tempo. Could serve as a story hook. Would be at least nice to reference it somewhere.

This Reddit fan-history of New Orleans — entirely non-canon, but still offers some possible hooks and insight. With the proposed rise of Biotech in ’52, that would cement the idea that the story should take place around ’55, which I believe puts it on the same timeline as Hong Kong and Dragonfall. As with those stories, the intent is to make the protagonist different from those two.

It mentions a “Green Scale Lodge” but Quick Google Search doesn’t bring up any other hits on it, so I don’t know if that’s a canon name or if it’s UGC. Before I commit to using or not using that name, I want to know if it’s a “thing.”

Target: Smuggler Havens, pgs. 7-29, 79-97 — Listed as a reference in the wiki page for New Orleans. I don’t possess this book or know how I would come about it, but I’m going to have to do everything in my power to go about getting it either in digital or hard copy at some point.

I did my own word cloud of stuff I want to make sure is included, either as themes or motifs, so let’s go over those.

Krewes — Before I moved down here, I had no idea what Krewes were. Contextually, they’re no different from, say, the Shriners in other parts of the US. Or the Lion’s Club. Or anything along those lines. Krewes are basically groups of people who donate to charities and stuff, not unlike an adult form of a frat/sorority. A few Krewes are gender/race locked, not as any “hard” rule, but you just won’t find men in the Krewe of Nyx or Krewe of Muses, but you won’t find women in Krewe of Druids, you won’t find white people in Zulu, and so on. In the world of Shadowrun, it appears that Krewes, at least some of them, have transitioned into violent gangs; that’s going to be a difficult thing for me to reconcile with. What I’d rather see would be a Krewe’s elite be a shadow organization behind a gang.

Other than the parades, Krewes are expected to host a bal masque. Yes, it’s kind of like Eyes Wide Shut without the copious amounts of open sex and class warfare. But crashing a Krewe’s bal masque of the rich and elite should be a legendary feat that would make a good shadowrun, similar to Is0bel’s DeckCon run in Hong Kong with more extended pinkies and disdain towards the poor.

Voodoo — Can’t have a New Orleans story without it. As with Qi in Hong Kong, voodoo should be a thing that at least one run is built around, but is a force that everyone understands and talks about, even if they don’t practice it themselves. There are also a lot of misconceptions about voodoo that are worth clearing up; the one that sticks with me is that Marie Laveau, aka “the Voodoo Queen” was a practicing and devout Catholic. Contrary to popular myth, voodoo is not a religion, and people in the faith (any faith) could be voodoo practitioners. With the Reddit post talking about how the Roman Catholics accepted women into the priesthood, and St. Louis Cathedral being a relatively famous US church, it’s not out of the question that a major NPC could be a Catholic voodoo shaman—an identity that, even without name or face, just tickles me pink.

Hollywood South — A moniker that the city tried to enforce while it had the same tax credits as Los Angeles. With the transition into the 6th World, though, I think there could be something to be said about simsense culture, as the CAS is going to want their own entertainment hub rather than import everything from Hollywood. I don’t want this run to look exactly like the Repulse Bay run from Hong Kong, however, so that’s going to be…contentious. Maybe I can combine this with the bal masque run; a simsense star would be a Krewe member, surely (Nathan Fillion was king of Orpheus this last year).

Vampire culture — One of my first experiences of New Orleans was actually finding a business card in a subway in NYC that talked about a “gathering” down in New Orleans; I went to the website…it was some trashy geocities-level cobblemosh of people who I’m pretty sure genuinely believed (or wanted to believe) they were vampires.

Of course, there are the novels by Anne Rice that made New Orleans synonymous with vampire culture, so the idea of vampires being a thing isn’t out of the question by a long shot. I have to balance this carefully, though; again, I don’t want to rip off the “out-of-place vampire” like Ku Feng, but there is something to be said about that poor-quality website in that if you wanted to mask a real operation, masking it under the guise of ineptitude is a relatively good way to about it. What I could do would be to interlace it with the Matrix, and make the “vampire club” or whatever in the Matrix look like a totally amateur-designed system to make them look like enthusiasts rather than actual vampires. Not to mention…whoever would think about hacking vampire message boards? I think I might be on to something.

In terms of actually designing the story:

I’ve gotten now about halfway through the tutorial series by Harebrained Schemes on how to use the editor and looked through the tutorials on the wiki. The next step, I think, is going to be just jumping in and designing a run, if for no other reason than to test how I work with the system (and just making sure the editor works on my Crapbook Pro). The thing is, I don’t have any concrete ideas about what my runs look like. I have a few nebulous ideas…

So, in my next post, I’ll lay out my blueprints for the meta story and some sub-meta shadowruns, and from there I’ll figure which one I have the strongest vision of, and actually start physically laying it out, from sketch to screen.

First Steps

So what is this, exactly?

I wanted to make something. I mean, I’ve been wanting to make something for a while, so this is me actually doing it. But I can’t just, y’know, do it. I’m one of those people who has to write down what they’re thinking. For posterity. And a bit for vanity.

But, realistically, I want to have a place to collect and place my thoughts. I’m a writer. It’s what I do. This is something of a log. I want to follow this process. It’s how I compartmentalize—or whatever. It’s also kind of a way to keep myself accountable. If I’m not writing, I’m not doing; and if I’m not doing, I’m not writing.

My end goal is to have a UGC campaign for Shadowrun: Returns using the Dragonfall: Director’s Cut version of the editor. I’m going to set a working goal to research, design, and blog for roughly two hours a day. Some days will be more blog than r&d, some days (after I’ve vomited out all of my thoughts) I will try and r&d more—hopefully by then I’ll be playtesting at least a little.

If things go well, this blog will follow me along the whole grueling process, step-by-step, from tonight, when I first began looking at tutorials on how to use the editor (seriously, like, three hours ago with a break for dinner and not counting the time it took to set up the initial blog) until post-release bug and dialogue fixes.

And if they don’t go well, then I have a few shaky, uncertain, probably rambling blog posts that only weird and random surfers will come across.

The Story

I’m actually confident that I can begin because I have an ending. At the risk of sounding elementary, this is actually a huge problem in my writing to date. I love the first few hours of stories. They’re my favorite part. Meeting characters, looking around the world for the first time. It’s like opening a Christmas present and having absolutely no idea what’s inside.

One of my fondest memories not just of gaming, but of my childhood, is from Final Fantasy VII. Like many Millennials, FF7 was my first venture into actual video game narrative. I mean, games had plots sort of. But most of the time the game was level, level, level, with some dialogue boxes for context in between. And I guess, that’s all technically Final Fantasy VII is…but it’s good dialogue boxes. Scenes.

The scene that really set it for me is the train ride to Sector 7. It’s a very early scene, full of quiet, calm music and a ton of exposition. And it’s hot on the heels of the game’s explosive, combat-filled intro. It’s a chance to breathe, to get to feel out who everyone is and where everyone is and just what exactly the stakes are. What games didn’t have before then is that moment to breathe before the next wave of combat, and I think FF7 did that extraordinarily well.

The point is, in pretty much every story I’ve written so far, I’ve got the first hour or two down pat. I’m really fuckin’ good at early story. But after that…my imagination’s as barren as the desert. Usually I’ll try to push on, fumble around, but as a rational I’m more concerned with maintaining suspension of disbelief than I am pushing the narrative forward. If I could, I’d live on that train to Sector 7. Metaphorically speaking. And to be fair, I’ve lived with this story in my head for months. Details surrounding it have changed, but that train ride equivalent has been there. But what kept me from starting, other than total ignorance of the editor and its functions, is knowing full well that I’d lack an ending.

So what does someone do when they can’t build something themselves?

They steal it.

I’m going to unabashedly rip off from other titles. Good artists borrow, great artists steal, right?

Right now, I have a sort of hybrid of Frozen Synapse and Mirror’s Edge in my mind. Two titles whose stories I’m oddly fond of despite neither really having what people consider AAA narratives. In both cases, you have an idealist antagonist. You have a tower. Both stories could be said to be more about the conflict of ideals than people, and that’s what I’m going for. However, with Shadowrun: Returns, I can’t force ideals on the player, so it’s going to likely look a bit closer to Frozen Synapse in there being a secondary character who is in primary conflict with the antagonist.

But I’ll talk more about my plans for the ending in my next post…