Diced Coffee

Ten years ago this month, my first self-published game, Invasion of the Saucer People! was crowdfunded.

Today there are 40 Lester Smith Games titles on DriveThruRPG, another 11 on DriveThruCards, and some freebies on this website/blog. (Check the menu, under “Games.)

All due to the moral support of some wonderful players, play-testers, and fans, several of whom have become my close friends and confidantes, even if only through social media, even if across oceans.

Whatever else you might say about the Internet, it keeps a guy like me connected to the world, and allows self-publishing to be more than just a local vanity press. For many of my old colleagues and public figures I follow, it’s a full-time occupation. For others like me, it’s an outlet for bucket-list projects and new inspirations, a place to discuss them, and maybe pay for coffee.

Games, like coffee, are best brewed with care. Anybody can boil some water and toss in a spoonful of instant. Literally and metaphorically. The result is its own punishment.

But to get a good cup of hot coffee, you have to start with the basics, at “ground” level, if you’ll forgive the pun.

  • Choose roasted beans that suit your taste. I prefer a dark espresso roast.
  • Grind them to the right consistency—err on the side of coarseness, to avoid silt in your cup.
  • Use fresh water, heat it to a simmer, and introduce the grounds for the right amount of time. I use a French press, so about three minutes. For a percolator, no more than five. Any longer, and you’ll extract bitters.
  • Pour it over ice, if you want it cold on a hot day.
  • Drink it fresh. Nothing’s worse than a pot that’s been sitting on the heat for hours, steaming away to harsh sludge.

To extend the metaphor to game design, I like to …

  • Start with a solid idea, something new and fresh.
  • Grind it into a first draft—whether that’s an ordered list of ideas, an actual outline, or a few paragraphs of synopsis, with details jotted below as they occur. Without grinding it too much by fixating on specifics too early.
  • Expose it to the fluidity of early play-test, generally alone at this point, to see if the dice rolls and/or card draws feel like I thought they would, and if questions arise I hadn’t thought of. Then dive deeper, examining the mathematical odds, using them to adjust details.
  • Pour it onto the page in full sentences, with headings and any graphics needed.
  • Have other people play it, and watch their reactions. It may mean I need to refine my brewing process for this game, though I seldom have to trash the original bean of an idea.

That’s not a perfect metaphor. But it suits the image I put together for this post!

When Giving Up Isn’t

Photo by Sedki Alimam on Unsplash

“It’s not all bad. Heightened self-consciousness, apartness, an inability to join in, physical shame and self-loathing—they are not all bad. Those devils have been my angels. Without them I would never have disappeared into language, literature, the mind, laughter and all the mad intensities that made and unmade me.”

Stephen Fry, Moab Is My Washpot

Maybe other people go through life without regularly reexamining their own actions, striving to improve. I don’t know. What I do know is I can’t help but look back in order to look forward.

And looking back, I’m starting to realize that a central theme of my life since childhood has been shame. Specifically shame from failure.

One instance of a shame that has haunted me in adulthood is having walked away from an uncompleted Master’s Degree. To understand the significance, you need to know how close I came to completion. (No humblebrag, just fact.) I’d finished every needed course—two solid years of study—with an A grade in all but one, a B. (My graduate entry GREs had been a perfect 800 in both the language and logic sections, a 760 in the math.)

All that was left was the formality of a final, comprehensive exam. And for the first time in my overachiever’s life, I partied through the night before, unable to study. Then walked into the test, filled in two sections, thought “There’s no way I’m making somebody read this bullshit,” and walked out, half finished, never to return.

Jennifer had labored hella hard to keep a roof over our head through those years, and we’d gone far into debt with student loans, but for some goddam reason, I just couldn’t step through that final door. I rationalized it with the truth that I was already working full-time for a game publisher, more than 40 hours a week, with a family of 4 children also needing attention. But even then I knew it was clearly a rationalization.

Nowadays I recognize it as an unconscious walking away from a trap. Getting that Master’s would have led further into a career in academia; there was no way this guy here could have done otherwise: Pursue a PhD, then the pursuit of increasingly rare tenure somewhere, to spend my life writing post-Transcendental Derridian Subjectivist critique of Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus or some such. No disrespect meant for PhD’s, but my soul would have withered.

That “walk away” doesn’t feel like rationalization. It feels like an unconscious pattern of turning away from traps, to instead achieve something joyful.

I had walked away from a great factory job after eight years, by not waiting out a layoff. Because it was clear I’d never otherwise have the courage to leave, to risk entering college as an undergrad at 30. My dad argued that I should return to get in 10 years for a vested pension, and rightly that I could take courses at night. But I’d have never escaped, and nowadays that factory is gone, its pension program ravaged.

I had walked away from GDW, as much as I loved the company and companionship, and as much as my star was rising there, to take a job at TSR. And not long after, GDW was no more.

I had walked away from TSR shortly before its collapse—and please hear me out. For most of my colleagues that change was nothing but a blessing, folding them into WotC, which treated them like royalty, honoring their years of TSR service with WotC stock options, though that new employer had no legal obligation to do so.

For me and mine the move would have been destruction. It’s no exaggeration to say that some members were still traumatized by the previous transit from Illinois to Wisconsin. I couldn’t uproot them again without destroying the family.

There are other walkaways I could list here since, but you get the point.

Ultimately it has all led to this place. A history of paths taken and things achieved, because other paths were abandoned. And at last maybe I grasp that “abandon” needn’t be a synonym for “shame.” To paraphrase Stephen Fry, it needn’t necessarily bedevil me. It may have fed my better angels, if people who judge me less harshly than myself are to be believed.

Janitor’s Log

Back when they Kickstarted this thing, there was a contest for a book of short-short stories. I didn’t make the cut. 🙂

Stardate 021631011956

“In space, no one can hear you yawn,” I thought, as I crawled through Jeremy Tubes, checking lint traps, in the dead of the night watch.

That’s when the first impact rocked the ship, and klaxons started howling.

I heard an automatic hatch clang and seal ahead of me. Without further thought, I started scuttling assward as fast as knees and elbows could piston. I’d been locked in a Jeremy Tube during an emergency before. The power fluctuations had felt like biting insects in every orifice. No way I was going through that again.

I exited feet first into the ship’s holotheater and slammed and dogged the hatch.

The ship rocked with another explosive impact. The lights flickered, then stabilized.

“Right,” a British accent broke in, “what’s all this then?” The ship’s Hologram appeared before me, done up as a London Bobby. He waved a nightstick in my face. “What are you hooligans up to now?”

“I don’t know!” I snapped. “You’re the one with instant access to the main computer. You tell me! Call up a damage report!”

He stepped back, at attention, and stared at me a moment. Then his eyes went blank, losing their normal faux sparkle as he concentrated on tapping into the ship’s primary systems. His Bobby getup faded, revealing a naked physique like a mannikin, and his voice went all mechanical.

“Alien missiles. One. Two. The first struck primary crew quarters, behind the bridge. The captain is dead.”

My spine suddenly felt like jelly. “What about the First Officer? The Admiral?” I whispered.

“Last logged in their quarters, presumed dead,” he stated, emotionlessly.

I staggered backward, bracing myself against the bulkhead, and slid to a seat on the floor. “Can you hail the bridge?” I choked out.

“It was the target of the second missile,” he replied, flatly.

The hull vibrated with another distant explosion. A terrified cry suddenly filled my brain, then silence. That would be the ship’s Telepath.

“That hit Engineering,” the Hologram reported. The lights dimmed. “Power now at 49 percent.”

Suddenly the hatch to the Jeremy Tube above me cycled and reopened. A head popped out. The Cyborg.

“Ah. Excellent!” He said brightly, staring down at me. “At last. A human officer. Until we can raise someone else, I’m afraid you’re in charge, Sir!”

I gazed dumbly at him as he slid from the tube. He took a moment to straighten his uniform, then turned to the Hologram.

“Get a bridge simulation set up here,” he said, “to serve as an auxiliary. We’ll need to respond to the alien ship in kind, if we want to survive long enough to get the main drives back online and buffer the shields.”

The Hologram nodded, and bridge controls began materializing out of thin air. The Cyborg turned back to me.

“Are you with me, Sir?” He asked, offering a hand to help me to my feet.

I coughed. Swallowed. “Uh. Yeah. Sure,” I answered, taking his hand. “Just to be clear though, I get combat pay for this, right?”

Elementals, by Michael McDowell

At first, it seemed as if written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Then it slid inexorably into Dan Simmons territory.

It’s not often I feel truly chilled by a novel and frightened for its characters. This one took me there. Definitely recommended.

(And thank you, to the anonymous Amazon ebook reader who chose to share this with a stranger. I’m much obliged.)

Elementals on goodreads