Designing Tension in Cyberpunk RED

Tales of the RED: Street Stories Cover Art

Heya choombas!

Wanted to share that my Cyberpunk RED adventures are titled “Bathed in RED” and “One RED Night.” While their stories can be told separately, I wrote them as two distinct parts of a larger narrative included in Tales of the RED: Street Stories.

One of the reasons why I wanted to write for Cyberpunk RED, is because I was keen on exploring narrative tension in Night City as you moved from scene to scene. My approach to introducing that tension is through the introduction of hard choices to shape your story and advance the plot. If you were reading a novel or comic book, those choices would be made by the protagonists. In a game, however, you are the protagonists actively contributing to the narrative fulfilling your own motivations and your group’s goals. Ultimately, it’s not my decision what happens next. It’s yours. My job is to present those gut-wrenching decisions that help you feel vested in the game.

I love presenting difficult choices, because they’re a great way to add depth to your story. To make them emotionally-compelling, I took the project’s guidelines to heart and made these choices personal. Smart technology, cool locations, even corporations aren’t enough of a story hook. They’re just props to interact with and cool set designs. What makes a story personal, are the characters you interact with during the game. In Cyberpunk RED, there are compelling challenges like that computer virus designed to wipe out your data. What I consider is who designed that virus and why they’re targeting you. Same thing with corporations, too. After all, a “greedy conglomerate” isn’t as interesting as a CEO who decides to cut your salary to give themselves a bigger bonus.

Characters also give you ways to interact with the story, learn more about the setting, and provide clues. That said, I didn’t design them according to their plot delivery function, because that wasn’t interesting enough to me. Instead, I prioritized “who” they were and “where” they were from before I worried about the plot. This approach allowed me to revel in what I enjoy writing—worldbuilding and characterization—even though I had some rules already in mind.

Though I had the basic idea for a mystery plot in the outline phase, I didn’t figure out the specifics right away. My breakthrough happened after I finished my first draft of both adventures. Oh, I remember that eureka moment very, very clearly—and not only because I had a wonderful Ah-hah! feeling. I was having so much fun writing in Night City, every character and cinematic scene I imagined flowed together as if I was watching a movie. I could even imagine this exact plot in a video game. That visualization is the moment I knew this story was cohesive and filled with jaw-dropping moments.

I’m extremely lucky to write for Cyberpunk RED, because Tales of the RED: Street Stories allowed me to explore new-and-existing aspects of Night City and its people. That said, this two-part story scales more toward cyberpunk thriller with horror elements than a straight-up adventure.

If you’re keen on learning more about game design so you can write your own adventures, I encourage you to sign up for my upcoming campaign planning class.

Thank you for listening!

On Refilling Your Creative Well

Cat in a Bucket

Our metaphorical well of creativity contains all we need to make art: inspiration, motivation, ideas. It’s a repository of our so-called creative juices that we draw upon until we can’t anymore for a variety of reasons. When we can’t create anymore, we get tired, burnt out, exhausted and look for ways to “refill the well”.

An empty well, then, implies that we don’t have any creative mojo left. We are all tapped out. I disagree with this metaphor, because I believe burnout doesn’t just happen from running out of creativity. It can also occur when there are obstacles in our path barring us from accessing the well. That distance, that inability to tap into a fundamental part of who we are, creates blockages that lead to exhaustion, even bitterness.

If you’re not creating, the very first question to ask and answer is: “Why?” Knowing why you aren’t creating is an important step. Here are some common reasons why burn out happens.

“I’m stressed out.”

“I don’t have time.”

“I don’t see the point.”

“I’m tired of getting rejected.”

“I’m tired of being underpaid and overworked.”

Let’s start with the first one. “I’m stressed out.” Stress, whether that’s due to pandemic fatigue or not, is an added burden. It may seem counterintuitive, but self-care can be a great path to creativity. Acknowledging, naming, even describing your stressors can help validate your feelings so you can deal with it. Sometimes, it might be as simple as taking a break from social media or falling into a beloved book to give you some relief.

Self-care can also be something small and free or inexpensive. If you “hit a wall”, you might get some fresh air, listen to your favorite song, text a friend, share a joke, etc. Twenty-minute naps, free writes, or meditations are also great!

Sometimes, I go to bed early when I hit that wall. Right before I drift off to sleep, I ask a question about my creative project. More than once, I wound up dreaming about the work and my subconscious figured out a path by the time I woke up.

My goal, here, is not to say you should eliminate all stress because that’s not realistic. Being a human in 2022 is incredibly stressful! I am suggesting that by acknowledging it, caring for ourselves, and getting a little distance from it you might find a wonderful path to draw on your creativity once more.

Walking through another example… Let’s tackle: “I don’t have the time.”

I’m nodding along with you, because time is a precious commodity and a resource. No question about it. You do not have the time. So, to get creative you’d need to find it. That bit, finding the time, is a process that sucks. Either, you have to give up something or you have to sneak working on your goal in a few minutes here and there. It can, in many ways, feel like a punishment rather than a necessary part of decision-making.

My suggestion, here, is not to start by analyzing your time or doing yet-another-deep-dive into what you are or aren’t doing. You are doing PLENTY! Instead, try to change your schedule/routine before adding anything else—including creative time—to your plate if you can.

The other thing about not being able to find time, is that sometimes this is code for “What’s the point?” or “I don’t know where to start.” Or, sometimes even more insidiously, imposter syndrome kicks in and we defeat ourselves before we start. “Why should I create? Who’d care? Why bother?” Only you know if that’s the case and “not being able to find the time” is a way to rationalize the real reason you aren’t creating.

Of course, I can’t tell you how to ask and answer your specific questions, because you know yourself best. I also don’t know your “what”. What motivates you? Is it a person? A goal? A reward? What? Knowing that can be incredibly helpful, because it gives you something to aspire to or hope for.

If your answer is “I don’t know what motivates me,” try journalling or creating a vision board to find that out. You might discover that the reason why you’ve lost your motivation is because you, as a creator, have changed and you need new sources of inspiration you haven’t sought out or used regularly in the past.

Asking yourself questions and finding answers is one technique you can use to be creative again, because it defines, acknowledges, and validates how you’re feeling by giving you a path forward. Sometimes, however, the path forward isn’t “the future”. When you literally can’t plan, you might consider revisiting the past, remembering what you loved, how you used to play, what your happiest moments were.

The last thing I want to say about refilling your well, is that if these paths and techniques sound like a lot of work? Then they are too much for you right now. I can’t stress enough how fresh perspectives don’t typically come from analyzing or following the same path over and over again. Sometimes, you do have to shake things up—which is MUCH harder to do right now—to clear a path.

My solution to refilling my creative well has been to use “one small thing” for my goals. What can I do right now, in this moment? What small, precious thing can I do? Those small things might include: a hundred words, a scene, a chapter, reading a chapter, writing a prompt, writing a pitch, etc. Then, I log that information in a journal. Over time, “one small thing” becomes visible for me, a journey that becomes more evident with each passing day.

I hope, after reading this post, you feel encouraged to find solutions for your creativity blocks. What you’re experiencing is going to be different from me, and I recognize and acknowledge that neurodiversity and your health absolutely factor into this conversation. If you need additional encouragement, however, let me say this: I believe in you. I really, really do! You can find your mojo again. Or maybe, it will find you.

If you are able to create right now, could you please do me a favor? Comment on this post or blog about how you’ve kept creating during the pandemic. Every little bit helps right now, and you never know…someone might stumble across your post/newsletter/update and read exactly what they needed to. Thank you!

BooksOfM Year-End Summary and 2021 Publications

Hello and welcome to my 2021 year end summary!

Instead of simply listing my credits like I did in my 2020 BooksOfM publications post, I want to share a more substantive update. The list follows and only reflects published works not what’s in progress.

2020 was, in my mind, a successful year because I survived the pandemic. Yes, I lost a lot, much like so many of you, but at the same time? I am incredibly lucky, because I am still here. To help me get through months of quarantine and endless amounts of waiting, I made a list—well over 100 items long—of all the things I wanted to do, learn, or try. If 2020 was “Wake Up. Kick Ass. Repeat,” 2021 has been revised to: “Wake Up. Plant a Seed. Help it Grow.”

It has been a quiet year, a year of personal development and growth, a year of cultivating, cutting, and harvesting, a year of being “off-stage” to work, find new gigs, and write on spec. I started the year not knowing how I was going to plow through 2020 Round Two with an article sale 101 Softly Delivered Writing Lessons to Apex Magazine and two 30-day challenges: a month-long art challenge I posted at BooksOfM on Ko-Fi and a month-long poetry challenge I published through BooksOfM on Patreon. (You can find the poems when you become a patron; you can also read about my decision not to publish a chapbook.) The poetry was emotionally draining, so I took a break to refuel my proverbial well and focused on social media management—making images for my existing/upcoming releases—along with a presentation about new players at the GAMA Expo Online.

Then, in April (following my hilarious-to-me Artisanal Writer April Fool’s joke news of vaccine availability started to circulate and I breathed a little easier. (Okay, a lot.) It helped I also had something fun to focus on: Sirens: Battle of the Bards Kickstarter. I signed on to write for the 5E campaign setting; that work is now complete and I really loved the experience and my contribution to the larger world.

In the Spring, I also taught a couple of writing workshops through the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers using tarot and ways to generate stories. I’m happy to report that my not-so-secret secret is slides; I do prep well ahead of time. It helps me keep time and the students engaged. In the middle of a very busy month, I was surprised to find out my short story “Scritch, Scratch” from Haunting Shadows for Wraith: The Oblivion was a 2021 Scribe Awards Nominee.

This Summer, I shifted gears to focus on community content and prepare for my first guest appearance in two years at GameHole Con 2021. I released the “Eyes of Spiragos” adventure for Scarred Lands, then drafted a pair of adventures I wanted to playtest along with a city building workshop, interview questions for my Rethinking Fear in Horror Games with Megan Connell, fundraising for Extra Life, etc. The show was packed and I’m very grateful for time spent with wonderful peers, fans, and friends.

Also in October, I was invited to participate in the Infinite Masters program for Pathfinder, published two releases, and then announced I’m part of a super exciting project—Tales of the RED for the Cyberpunk RED RPG. In November, I completed the first drafts and handed those in! More on this upcoming project later.

Now, as I inch closer to 2022, I’m wrapping up the year to (hopefully) leap forward in 2022. In December, I typically spend time free writing to reflect on the prior year. So how did I line up with my public-announced resolution to write for myself every day? Well, hilariously that is exactly the spot where I ended up, just not in a way I expected it to. When I wrote that resolution, I thought it meant: “Work on my own IPs every day.” Or, to not write for someone else. Except, this year I rediscovered joy in everything I wrote—from marketing copy to Cyberpunk. (Especially Cyberpunk!!!!) Now I really do “write for myself” every day, no matter who I’m volunteering/working with or for, in the healthiest, loving way possible.

This year, I’m tabling my Writerly Accountability post; setting goals has been great, mind you, but friend I need a vacation. Sunlight would be nice, too. And an ocean or three.

On that note, here’s my 2021 publications:

Published Fiction in 2021

“From an Honest Sister, to a Neglected Daughter”, Sisterhood: Dark Tales and Secret Mysteries, 2021, Chaosium Publishing

“Revenge of the Deceiver” short story, Pathfinder, 2021, Pathfinder Infinite

Published Games

Sea of Legends board game, 2021, Guildhall Studios (IF)

WORLD OF DARKNESS GHOST HUNTERS, 2021, Onyx Path Publishing/Paradox Interactive

EYES OF SPIRAGOS, a Scarred Lands 5th Edition adventure, 2021, Slarecian Vault

UNLIKELY COMPANIONS, Pathfinder First Edition, 2021, Pathfinder Infinite

The Story behind my Rethinking Fear in Horror Games Interview with Doctor Megan

It’s the Monday after GameHole Con and the week of Halloween. I had a fantastic time and am grateful to have been part of the show as a special guest. Said I wasn’t going to write the day after the show, but I lied. I realized that I wanted to tell you the story behind why I proposed the Rethinking Fear in Horror Games Interview with Doctor Megan at the show for two reasons: One, MeganPsyD (on Twitter) recorded it, and I’d really, really be grateful if you’ll reshare it when it goes live and two, because the long, sordid backstory isn’t appropriate to share with you when the literal star of this interview is Doctor Megan Connell.

All right… So, one of the many work-related tasks I did during the pandemic was to review all the creative projects I wanted to do but never produced. I think I told you this before, but as a transmedia storyteller I love to develop stories in different mediums to tap into the gifts they bring. Working on IP as a game designer was a great push toward that, because I had the pleasure of being able to study the IPs I was working on in different media forms.

But for all those benefits, working on IPs isn’t “my” work. My IPs. Somewhere along the way, I started recognizing I had limited resources to do what I wanted to do. I addressed this in a previous newsletter, but this was one of the reasons why I developed a scarcity mindset. And, look I am really great at project management to usher projects out into the world with the resources I do have available, but at the same time I have always been a high creative and would much, much rather do that.

So, there I was reminding myself that yes, I have always known what I wanted to do. In fact, here’s a pile of projects I remembered stalled because I needed help to produce them. In the past, I have asked for help. I have a gut-wrenching-to-me cyberpunk story, for example, that primarily works as a movie or graphic novel because of the gifts an actor can bring, but also because the use of color is actually part of the story. [Not just a concept, mind you. I do have materials for this.] Okay, so how do I produce this thing? Write a screenplay, right? Sell it? Win the lottery? Yeah, you see where I’m going with this. Mind you, I did place as a co-write in a screenwriting contest and had a door open for a hot minute, but nothing ever came of that. The real reason I didn’t write the screenplay is because I made a choice not to. I have limited resources and, other than paying money to enter screenplay contests and hoping for the best, it’d be challenging for me in my current position to make the connections necessary for a green light. I also spent a solid five-to-six years pitching and getting to know people at comic book conventions because I secretly wanted to do this story, and wanted to work on other comics first to build of my resume, but have since given up.

Both times, I got a lot of advice to form a path of produced works to increase the chances of my projects getting made. My barrier? Again. Resources. Sure, I could self-publish, but that seems to be the default answer every time. It still costs to self-publish. Time is just one of those costs! My personal art isn’t great enough to pursue it; and I cannot, and will not, find an artist to collaborate with unless I pay pro rates. Laughably, what do you do when you do have a resume but it’s either too long or not long enough?

I have no idea. But, I am lucky I have had friends and folks I’ve thought of as mentors who’ve guided me to an important realization: Keep an open mind and do what I can, because the work is for me even if I enjoy entertaining people. I am so incredibly sad to tell you many of them are no longer with me, but I got here—in this creative space where F-bomb it I’m going to do what I can and hope for the best—because of them. Because of my late Shakespeare professor who not only taught me how to appreciate and write for multiple audiences at the same time, but recognized I was a better fit for film. Because of my late friend who made peace with his own role in publishing and his success after talking to so many other creative professionals in the exact same space I am. Because of several friends of color who have had the patience to help me recognize my own privilege (while recognizing there are still challenges as an aging, female creative) and how I can help lift others and build community. Because of one particular black friend (you know who you are and you are AMAZING) who proverbially held my hand for many years, both before, during, and after a tumultuous time in both gaming and science fiction and fantasy to remind me of my own power. Because of the tireless support and the position I put my loved ones, my friends and peers, my writing group, even former publishers in. Because of the lessons I learned after meeting two of my literary heroes, where one crushed my heart to the point where I never thought I’d recover, and the other extended compassion and friendship.

And now, because of Doctor Megan. The project that I am working on with Doctor Megan is a Ravenloft 5th Edition campaign for DMsGuild.com. This is a set of releases that wouldn’t be possible without Megan’s expertise as a professional psychologist and her deep, deep love of Dungeons & Dragons.

As a former World of Darkness writer myself, I have always felt the horror genre contributes narrative potential to explore our shadows. Philosophically, I believe that shadows and light are crucial components of the human existence and, to a larger extent, the stories we tell. But, I also recognize there are a lot of problematic tropes that I wanted (and have to various ends throughout my career) to work through in the hopes it’ll make the story better, my anxiety notwithstanding. (The concept behind my Apex Book Company anthology Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling was inspired by this!)

As before: I didn’t write this campaign, because I was missing something. I knew I was missing an important thematic piece that could, quite frankly, only come from someone who understood what horror was from an actual psychologist’s perspective who understood gaming. Then, I got lucky. Megan and I met at GameHole Con a few years ago, became friends, play Ravenloft together, and eventually got to a place where I could ask for her help.

This is now our campaign. We playtested two scenarios at this show and got amazing feedback. Now it’s a matter of, again, figuring out my resources. I have to prioritize my deadline-centric work, because without a publisher I am fronting the time and costs and friends, I got bills to pay. Then there’s the collaboration with an actual professional who has a day job, loved ones, etc. But, this campaign is a possibility now because this story required collaboration, and it’s all happening thanks to her.

So why THIS interview? Well, because I can’t imagine I am the only writer who’s worked on horror games, who wants to evoke that feeling of fear at the table in a healthy way, who’d be both curious and feel a little less anxious about this heavy genre work after hearing her expertise. Horror game design is hella complicated, yo. And before you freak out… Please know that horror game design from a psychological approach is not always about The Deep StuffTM or massive genre changes—even small tweaks make a world of difference.

I am extremely grateful to Doctor Megan and to GameHole Con for approving this talk. The room was packed, her voice was heard, and with any luck she’ll go on to huge, huge things.

As for me? I really don’t know, but I have a long-ass list and deadlines I need to keep crushing (while seeking out new opportunities). And I’ll keep muddling through all this the best I can. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even find a little more help along the way.

Wouldn’t that be something.

Donate to Affect my Character During our Extra Life Charity Stream!

One Night in Ravenloft

In my list of announcements earlier this week, I mentioned I’ll be playing in an Extra Life Ravenloft game to help me raise money for sick kids.

I now have an awesome donations page set up! For as little as $10 you can affect my character. Huzzah! All donations will be fulfilled on Saturday, October 23rd during our fun game.

You do not have to be in attendance to participate; you can watch virtually or donate ahead of time.

Link to Stream: twitch.tv/demiplanerpg

Link to Donate: Monica Valentinelli’s Donation Page on Extra Life



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