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.

Now Available! Read about 5 Magical Creatures on Charmed at Tor.com

Hello, everyone! I’m so pleased to mention you can read Five Fascinating Magical Creatures that Debuted in the Original Charmed on Tor.com. I wanted to write this post as a follow-up to talk about my love as a fan of classic Charmed and the new show that debuted in Fall 2018.

Classic Charmed gives me a lot of fond memories. It was a show that broke a lot of ground for both female empowerment and the positive depiction of magical women. After watching the new Charmed show, I have a lot of feelings about what could still be done to bridge the gap between the two. I do feel both are strong shows—certainly, the new Charmed explores powerful interpersonal relationships, contemporary themes, and authentic practitioners—that approach story and setting very differently. Classic Charmed‘s narrative arc had more space and the stakes swelled with each season, but they were small and more personal in the beginning. The new Charmed, on the other hand, has a LOT of story in every season that significantly changes the world, the characters, and the stakes are very high.

That (ultra-high stakes) is an approach I fear will smother the show by the end of a third season.

Though I regard each show to stand on its own merits and can be critiqued separately, I want to point out that all of the actresses did a great job exploring witchiness from their characters’ perspectives. I do think there is one improvement that can be made to satisfy both older fans and new ones while giving a little oomph to the possibility of more seasons. One word: CROSSOVER! Why not lean into the parallel/alternate universes aspect they’ve already introduced? Wouldn’t that be awesome! Hell, I’d write a crossover miniseries (2-6 episodes) that bridges the best of both shows while introducing a new wrinkle going forward. Do I have ideas? Hah. YUP!

Regardless, I hope the crossover idea would be/has been considered for many, many reasons. There’s a really powerful statement that can be made by showing the true power of witchy sisterhood is not only intergenerational, it’s also intersectional.

More on Paracelsus

In my Tor.com article, I mentioned Paracelsus when talking about gnomes. Paracelsus is/was a key and controversial historical figure, both as an alchemist and physician, but he was also extremely misogynistic and racist even among his contemporaries because he drew from medieval perspectives. For example, there was a pervasive medieval view shared by physicians, such as Ambrose Pare, that women were responsible for the birth of monsters. I covered him more in depth for my newsletter subscribers at: https://booksofm.substack.com. You can join the conversation there. Yay!

Again: Thanks so much for reading and supporting my debut Tor.com article! EVEN MORE YAY!

Save the Date! Learn Campaign Planning with Gaming Veteran Valentinelli

Captain Whinypants Saves the Day

Did you know the elements of campaign planning are rooted in narrative design? In this workshop, gaming veteran Monica Valentinelli introduces her “Spiderweb Method” for campaign planning and walks you through how to use it for longer story arcs. Also included is a list of tips and tricks to help manage your players to avoid railroading, give them what they want, but keep your story on track.

This workshop is appropriate for first-time or veteran GMs. Fans of Monica’s work will be familiar with the concept introduced in the Kobold Guide to Game Mastering.

Classes through the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers are taught online and require a reliable Internet connection, although in the past participants have logged on from coffee shops, cafes, and even an airplane; a webcam is suggested but not required.

Date: Next class date is Saturday, December 12, 2020, 9:30-11:30 AM Pacific Time.

Cost: $99 ($79 for returning students and Patreon supporters, which includes classes/workshops with the Cat Rambo Academy in other venues, such as conference or convention workshops and mentoring sessions).

To sign up for this class, visit: Planning Your Tabletop RPG Campaign with Monica Valentinelli. Your email will be sent to the class administrator, Cat Rambo.



My Clarion Write-A-Thon Project

Hiya! This year, I signed up to help the Clarion Write-A-Thon raise funds and support the workshop. I just decided what I’ll be writing about and have opted to select six, unique Italian fairy tales to retell. I want to share with you what this means to me in the hopes you’ll follow along and support my work.

Clarion’s six week-long Write-a-Thon is the perfect opportunity to explore a part of my identity while consciously avoiding tropes. I’m pledging six short story drafts in this time period; I’ll be releasing the drafts, one per week, under a password protected area on my website for sponsors to read. The rules? Simply, this: for the project, I will not include cisgendered white male characters.

I have complicated feelings about being Italian-American and the daughter of an immigrant due to past experiences. I’m also fed up with media depictions that focus on a razor-thin section of the entire culture, both here and abroad. In America, the dominant Italian-American stereotype in artistic media is a cartoonish “wise guy” or sometimes “gal”. Over and over again, these stereotypes of Italian-Americans depict cisgendered white men and few cisgendered white women. Of the men, Italian-Americans must be the hyper-masculine, violent tough guy/hottie or the devoted, politically shrewd Catholic priest. Of those few Italian women, we must be sexy mothers or nuns.

In exchange for your support, you’ll read how I process this part of my identity through my brainstorming, story selection, and first drafts. If you’re keen on following my progress, warts and all, I encourage you to become my sponsor and sign up for my newsletter.

If you’re not, that’s okay! There are dozens of other writers you can support, too, and I will always encourage you to back the writer you want to read. Here’s the link to the full list.



Writing in the Chaos Timeline

Morning Pages at the Magical HouseI had a list of personal writing, dietary, and fitness goals I wanted to accomplish when I left for Florida on March 1st. The original plan was to celebrate my birthday here (my friends were going to surprise me with a trip to Disney World), then go to a conference, then home. My next six months were already set—I knew what I’d be working on, what gigs I’d need to look for, and which personal projects I wanted to finish. I had already decided my summer would be taken up with household stuff I’d long put off, because I needed room for growth. Back in January, I had opened myself up to change on a lot of fronts for many different reasons. I just didn’t know COVID-19 would escalate to global and deadly proportions.

Everyone I know is affected by COVID-19 in some fashion. Gigs evaporating, contracts uncertain, convention-centric vendors going out of business, the inspiration to make art evaporating because what’s the point when a catastrophe is going on. I’ve also been affected by COVID-19. Wonder Stories was supposed to debut at SXSW; I’ve also experienced a few lifestyle changes due to my friends and family who are immunocompromised.

I’m not home yet. I travel back this week from Florida where, to be perfectly blunt, a whole lot of people are not taking this seriously despite the panic buying that’s happening right now. I hope/pray/etc. that my trip will be uneventful. I had planned to return earlier, but unfortunately I came down with something that took me out for a week and a half. I wanted to be well (which I am now, thankfully) because I didn’t want to travel being immunocompromised or putting others at risk. Once I do get home, I’m on strict quarantine for two weeks and then for the rest of April.

Despite all the chaos, my “plans” evaporating, and lost gigs, I’m still writing. The words are trickling slowly. My first drafts, which I normally write in my head, are shitty. I don’t feel guilty about it. I put pen to paper, write morning pages, and scribble a few poems. But I am writing, organizing my concepts, and identifying where I want to grow.

Pre-outbreak, I had a plan. Now? It’s far less determinate. Rapid change is simply guaranteed and, unfortunately, that means the only way I can keep writing is to accept the unknown, make the best use out of the time I have now, and remember to have fun. Because without that? It’s going to be a long quarantine and an even longer summer.

I hope you’re doing well. I know this isn’t a fun situation, by any means, for anyone. If you want to connect I’ll be checking into Twitter periodically and am posting pictures on Instagram @booksofm. Other than that? I’ll be blogging again. I miss LiveJournal, and I suppose the only way to tap into that nostalgia is to simply journal.

‘Til next time!

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