alycewilson (alycewilson) wrote,

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The Examined Life

On Saturday, The Gryphon and I had to get up incredibly early, because we both had materials to prepare for events we were running at Philcon.

In The Gryphon's case, he was running a military war game, General Quarters, in one of the game rooms at 7 p.m.

In my case, I had agreed to run a workshop, Using Improvisational Skills in Role-playing. The workshop was a last-minute addition, because the woman in charge of the gaming track wanted to fill up the schedule. The goal was to share some basic improv skills that could be applied to both gamers and GMs.

The Gryphon, a member of PAGE (Philadelphia Area Gaming Enthusiasts), gave me some insight into what skills might be useful. After reading through my musings on my improv classes to refresh my memory on what I'd learned through ComedySportz Philadelphia, I put together an outline.

After breakfast at home, we drove to the Sheraton Philadelphia City Center Hotel. I attended The Gryphon's first panel of the day, "Family Game Night: It's Not Just 'Snakes and Ladders'," for which he was the moderator. He's on the far right in this pic.

Family Gaming panel


The audience was good for the small room: about 10 to 12 people, not including myself. They interacted with the panelists, at The Gryphon's invitation, asking questions and sharing their insights into games that are appropriate to play with children.

After that, The Gryphon was on another panel in the same room, "O What a Brave New World: World Building in Literature and Role-playing Games." Meanwhile, I attended "Ninja, Pirate, Mad Scientist, Robot!" Philcon had held a similar panel last year, but with "monkey" in place of "mad scientist."

The principal was like an extended version of the improv game, Expert Panel. Each of the panelists was given a role to fulfill — ninja, pirate, mad scientist or robot — and they had to answer questions from the point of view of that role. The goal: to prove themselves superior to the rest.

Hugh Casey once more served as the moderator, with panelists Phil Kahn (mad scientist); Glenn Hauman (ninja); Sally-Rouge Pax and her twin brother, Cool Blue Jo (pirates); and Onezumi (robot).


Hugh Casey as moderator

Hugh Casey


Ninja, Pirate, Mad Scientist, Robot! panel

</i>(from left) Phil Kahn, Glenn Hauman, "Cool Blue" Jo, Sally-Rouge Pax, Onezumi</i>

Glenn won himself the ninja role by sneaking into the room along the wall, whilst wearing black. The others were chosen arbitrarily by Hugh.

Just as he had when he'd argued on behalf of robots the previous year, Phil threw his all into the game, coming up with inventive ways to justify why his character was the best. He even invented a little back history: his mad scientist lived on Mt. Skull Crusher and had programmed the robot Onezumi.

He was creative, too, about incorporating other panelists' answers into his own. For example, when asked what he'd get each of the others for Christmas, he drew on the pirates' expressed preference for a certain alcohol and developed a scientific reasoning for giving them rum.

When asked about the highlight of his career, he said that, when a British spy had infiltrated his secret lair, he'd shot him pointblank, without monologuing.

Glenn was equally well-suited for the role of ninja, and he often gave responses that sounded like a Zen koan: the wind blows many thoughts. His best moment arrived when they were asked to describe how they'd defeat the others. While Cool Blue Jo was answering, he snuck up behind him and mimed breaking his neck. Clearly, he'd won that argument!

The pirates certainly stuck to their characters: freewheeling, boozing and self-interested. They came up with a great answer to how they would steal a precious diamond from a high-security facility. The mad scientist had just described how he would use complicated contraptions, including a laser gun, to steal the jewel. Sally said she would show some cleavage and waylay the mad scientist with her charms so her partner in crime could steal the jewel off him.

Onezumi opted for an unusual approach to her character. Rather than relying on SF tropes about robots, she created a ribald robot who, for example, had an extendable penis and a stomach refrigerator loaded with boomerang anuses. The audience didn't respond as warmly to her, not knowing what to make of her interpretation. Perhaps if she'd gone with well-known "sex bot" tropes, she would have been better received.

By applause, the audience voted Phil once again the winner. Afterwards, I told all the panelists about my improv workshop, although none of them were able to make it.

We had a short break, then, to get lunch, and The Gryphon and I walked to a nearby Subway, where we knew we could get something healthy. I'm glad we ate together, because it kept me from over-thinking my improv workshop and making myself nervous.

By about 10 of 1, we'd returned to the hotel and set up the section where I'd be teaching the workshop. It was in the back of one of the gaming rooms, a meeting area called The Druid's Circle. Really, there wasn't much to do, because there were already plenty of chairs arranged in a circle.

As 1 p.m. crept nearer, it seemed as if I might have to cancel. Nobody but The Gryphon and I were in the room, and h was only there to get a few pics of me in action before setting of on his own tasks. So we were overjoyed to see Batman striding into the room, carrying The Gryphon's hat, which he'd left behind at Batman's house recently. I told him about the workshop and persuaded him to stay.

The Dormouse had also told us he'd arrived, along with two other PAGE members, including the woman who'd asked me to run the workshop.

As we waited, another gamer arrived, this one a young blonde guy who said a buddy of his might join us. Just as I was walking to the main game room to check, one of the PAGE members arrived with two friends, telling me the other member would be coming soon. So we got started by introducing ourselves around the circle. More people drifted in, including The Dormouse, the other PAGE member, and a game designer who agreed to participate, since he had nothing to do until his 2 p.m. game. So all told, we had about eight or nine people, which was a great number.


My improv workshop at Philcon

We started with a round of Zip Zap Zop, which they enjoyed. This is the game where you pass sounds and motions around the circle. I thought it would be a good way to loosen them up and get them to think on their feet. They actually changed it up a little bit on their own, adding different motions to the sounds as they passed them.

Next, I taught them the concept of a platform: who, where and what. We talked first about the who portion of the platform, or building a character. I had them get together in groups and have conversations where their emotions would change according to my direction. We talked about how that changed what they talked about and how they used their bodies. We did a similar exercise where I had one of them be higher in status than the other, then had them switch. We talked about what effects that had on the dynamic between them. And we did a movement exercise where I had them walk around the room, leading with different parts of their body. Then we talked about what kind of character the different ways of walking suggested to them.

As much as possible, I brought everything back to gaming. Most of them were GMs as well as players, so I talked about how they could work with players towards a richer portrayal of their characters.

In the case of "where," that's often something the GM or the player determines and describes explicitly for the group, which is a little different from having to create a sense of place in improv. I suggested encouraging people to really imagine themselves in that space, to interact with it. We did a movement exercise where they walked around the room, interacting with environments I established, such as a swamp or a war zone. They really had fun with the war zone, ducking behind chairs and diving for cover from bombs. I was struck by how naturally they all worked together, even though some of them had never met. I found myself wishing we had time to do some scene games. I hadn't planned on doing any, because it was an introductory class and I didn't want to make anyone uncomfortable. If I'd had more time to play with, we certainly could have moved onto some scene work, I think.

For "what," we talked about using action to create a problem and move the scene along. I had them break up into groups and interact in platforms I gave them, such as an auction house or a ship that was going down. I probably should have been a little more general, so that they'd be forced to find the problem on their own. Still, they seemed to get something out of it.

Then we moved on to the concept of "yes, and," which is very important to both gaming and improv. I divided them into small groups and had them work on designing a toothpaste. First, they had to negate everything the other person said. Then, they tried "yes, but," where they agreed but qualified. Finally, they did "yes, and," where they agreed with them and built onto it. We talked about that helping to move the story forward.

Finally, we worked on storytelling, where we told stories around the circle. The first few people would create a who and a where, the next three would come up with what and create a problem, and the last three would resolve it. That also went swimmingly, although one of the stories ended with an explosion out of desperation, I suppose, for resolution.

By then it was 2, and a lot of them had to go. I thanked them all and told them they'd done great. I felt really good about it; in some ways, it went even better than I'd hoped. I had some downtime before my next panel, which was at 3, so I just took the time to socialize a little bit with The Gryphon and some other gamers.

My 3 p.m. panel was "Why I Decided to Start a Blog." My fellow panelists were SF authors David Louis Edelman, Tony Ruggiero and Michael Swanwick. David served as the moderator and did a nice job, referring to notes he'd made for himself on a personal organizer.


Why I Decided to Start a Blog panel

(from left) Michael Swanwick, me, David Louis Edelman, Tony Ruggiero

The question posed by the panel title was easy to answer, as we'd all started our blogs on the advice of others (editors or friends) who told us it could help bring people to our Web sites. We moved, then, into a discussion of the ins and outs of blogging: what we do and don't write about; how often we post; what sort of software and Web tools we use; and what our goals are with our blogging. We also answered audience questions.

While we were talking about what we write on our blogs, Michael Swanwick made an interesting observation about mine. He called it "the examined life," which seems perfect, as it includes the philosophical aspects. I don't merely talk about my life, but I frequently also comment and reflect on it, drawing larger truths.

We both agreed that we also strive to stay positive on our blogs, especially when talking about real people we know. After all, it serves no purpose to cast people into a bad light or to make the reader feel as if they'd walked in on an argument.

I came away from the panel with some great ideas, such as mirroring Musing on other blogging sites. As of yesterday, I started mirroring my blog on my MySpace page, and begun a new LiveJournal. I also learned about RSS feeds, which is a technology I may look into using on my home page as well as on Wild Violet.

We had a decent audience, too. I'd guess we had somewhere in the neighborhood of about 15 people, and several of them had great questions. A few of them came up to the table afterwards and took one of my postcards for WildViolet.

Next, I headed for the key note speech by SF author Eric Flint. Since I walked in a little late, I had to sit near the back, which was less than ideal for picture taking.


Eric Flint

His speech focused on the publishing industry and his participation in the Baen Free Library, which offers e-book versions of a number of titles for free. He said that, contrary to industry fears, this has actually led to more book sales, not fewer.

He spoke about how retail has become consolidated into big companies who only want to market well-known authors, which means paperback sales of science fiction are down. However, he said that e-publishing has been increasing, as the SF audience tend to be computer-oriented. People with sight problems can read e-books through software that reads documents allowed. Also, people in the military find it easier to read numerous books on handheld electronic readers than in traditional bound form.

E-publishing, he said, is also a solution for unknown authors, who can expose people to their work, as well as participate in online discussions with their readers.

At the same time, he acknowledged the downside, which is that many people are unlikely to adopt e-books because the technology changes so fast. He said, though, that people often buy books in multiple formats, such as hardback and e-book, to use them for different purposes.

All in all, he said he hopes to remove fear from the discussion about e-publishing, by proving that, instead of decimating the book industry, it can revitalize it.

I left during the Q&A in order to head for another panel, "How to Sell Your First Novel," with panelists David Louis Edelman, Jonathan Maberry, SF authors Linda Bushyager and L. Jagi Lamplighter, and author/agent Joshua Bilmes.

They offered oodles of good advice, such as researching authors who write in similar genres to you and finding out who their agents are; consulting a reference guide like the Writer's Market; check out potential agents and publishers on sites about scams; and networking, networking, networking. For first-time novelists, they all agreed it's important to complete your manuscript first, since that way the publisher knows they can trust you to finish a project.

In addition, they referenced a number of useful books, such as Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass and The Awful Truth About Publishing by Jeffrey R. Parnau.

Following this panel, I met The Gryphon for dinner. He was near the end of a game of Puerto Rico in one of the game rooms.


Puerto Rico game

They were nearing the end of the game, but it was already after 6 and I worried about him making it back in time to run his Siekrieg game. They were finished by about quarter after, so we opted for the hotel restaurant, Philip's Seafood, which is on the pricey side. Well, we hadn't really splurged since our honeymoon.

We both had a glass of white wine, and I ordered the barramundi, which couldn't compete with my memory of the barramundi I had at Flying Fish Cafe at Disney World. Of course, it would be hard to compete with that, since I was also flying on a honeymoon high, which naturally colored my memories of the food.

When The Gryphon had finished eating, he looked at his watch and discovered it was 10 after, so I told him to go upstairs and set up the game while I waited for the check. On my way back up, I ran into one of my favorite people, Danielle Ackley-McPhail, an author and editor whom I first met at a Halloween party several years ago. She, her husband and some friends were headed downstairs to get some drinks in the lobby, and I told her I'd join her in a little while.

First, I checked in with The Gryphon, who was busy setting up his game.


The Gryphon sets up Siekrieg

When he had everything carefully measured out on the table, Siekrieg being a tactical game based on real-life naval battles, we sat back and waited for players. Sadly, none showed, and at 8 p.m. he agreed to pack it in. He wasn't terribly disappointed, though, because he'd thought that a military strategy game would be a hard sell at a SF con. Maybe next year, he said, he'll run a game that ties in better with the interests of Philcon attendees.

He accompanied me down to the lobby, where Dani and company were nursing drinks at a couple tables in a quiet corner. Her bubbly laughter drew us through the lobby, and she greeted us with a hug. We made introductions all around, and I got us a couple drinks at the bar. I got to talking to a gamer/author, James Daniel Ross, agreeing to do an interview with him in the future. After talking to Dani about her latest project, a short-story collection called ,i>Bad Ass Faeries,</i> I recommended she send a review copy and a cover letter to Bust magazine, which is a modern feminist magazine with a sense of humor that loves indie projects. I also told her about my wedding book project. Networking, networking, networking.

A couple other people drifted over, including author C.J. Henderson, who was carrying around original art for his latest book, which collects some of his SF detective stories. The picture was in a comic book style and included a pinup style blonde with a gun who I thought looked totally bad-ass.

Since I appreciate that art, he showed me a book he'd written, Baby's First Mythos, featuring artwork by his very talented daughter. We had a good time talking about that, especially about the portraits of the two of them that appear in the back. I noted that she drew a picture of him that looked very true to life, almost regal.

"Look how highly she regards you," I said.


C.J. Henderson drawing

He explained that she'd done that drawing from a head shot he used for all his public appearances, the family joke being that some day when he passes away, they'll have only two pictures of him: the head shot and his wedding picture.

By contrast, her picture looked positively waif-like, with only two dots for eyes and a slit for a mouth.

"Look how she thinks of herself," I said.


Erica Henderson drawing

That, he said, also came from an in-joke. A friend had told him that every time he spoke about the illustration work his daughter was doing for him, the friend pictured her as an Edwardian waif chained to a desk. I wouldn't be surprised if we hear more of her in the future, especially as she's already done some work for the Cartoon Network.

When everyone said their goodnights and headed home, at about 10 p.m., I stopped in at the "Bad Anime Bad" panel, where they show clips of less-than-stellar anime and riff on it. Little surprise, my friends The White Rabbit and The Dormouse were on it, and The Pop Junkie was running it.


Bad Anime Bad panel

(from left) The White Rabbit, The Dormouse, The Pop Junkie (standing)

I watched as they tore about a horribly bad anime series featuring a giant robot, but I left when they cued up the animated Dracula they'd discussed in previous years. I knew it was horribly bad, and it was also long, so I didn't think I could sit through it again. On my way out the door, I waved cheerily to them, forced to stay and watch. Poor suckers.

This was a relaxed time of the weekend, and people were gathering and socializing in the hallways. Some guitar music and voices drew me, and I found a couple musicians performing in the hallway. I joined them, and while I didn't know most of the traditional folk songs they were singing, I joined in on the chorus whenever possible.


Folk musicians jamming

Listening to them really took me back to my hippie days, sitting around a campfire while somebody noodled around on a guitar or we all jammed out with whatever musical instrument or improvised percussive devices (IPDs). IPDs can be anything from a plastic Tupperware container to a part of your body, and they're vastly preferable to IEDs, as they tend not to be fatal.

The female musician, who reminded me a lot of Joni Mitchell, both in the quality of her voice and in her looks, left to take a smoking break, which seemed a natural time for me to move along. I got her card, though, and discovered that she has several albums out on indie labels, including three in the group Double Trouble.

The costume contest had ended, so on my way to find The Gryphon, I got a couple pics of some costumers. One couple I remembered from running into them a previous year, when he was dressed as a mad scientist. He and his female companion were dressed as Sith cheerleaders (you know, like the Sith lords in the Star Wars movies.)


Sith cheerleaders

Then there was a particularly good Dr. Who, who looked like my favorite manifestation of the character, played by Tom Baker.


Dr. Who costumer

It was nearing midnight this time when we left, and we had another early morning ahead of us, so we bid our friends goodnight and made our exit.

On the way back to our parking garage, we came across an unusual sight. To get to the parking garage, we had to walk through the foyer of a shopping plaza, where workers were busy decorating for the holidays. I got a great shot of some workers halfway up a multistory Christmas tree, which they were in the process of creating.


Tree decorators

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Tags: blogging, dormouse, gaming, gryphon, improv, philcon, writing

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