Tracy Barnett: The Terribleminds Interview

Tracy Barnett is a creator of games in the old school, including the successfully-funded-on-Kickstarter game, School Daze. (Oh, and he has a new Kickstarter running for a game between only two people called “One Shot.”) You can find him at his online space, sandandsteam.net, or follow him on the Twitters @TheOtherTracy. Behold his thought-milk, below.

This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.

[RETRIEVAL COMMENCING]

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Wednesday, March 25 53 A.U.

53% left.

I found this old JournalPad in some wreckage near the Scrapyard. The ads claimed the battery would last longer than a single man’s lifetime with one charge. Given what’s happened around here, I don’t doubt that claim for a second. If we don’t find some food and some potable water, we’re fucked.

[IMAGE: JPI0023.PNG]

I used to work up there. I didn’t make the cut. I wasn’t smart enough, or diligent enough, or I didn’t kiss enough ass, or… something. I don’t even know anymore. When the decision came down from the UEG, everyone in the facility assumed they’d be on board. They’d get a lift off thi-4$*#^!ff

[FILE CORRUPTION]

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#(4495)#&@@!-as the worst. Once the dome perimeter shut down, the fumes started seeping in. And worse than the fumes were the people. The Forgotten. The ones who didn’t even deserve a life in the domes. The ones who were always on the outside. Well, not any more. They’re in the City Center right now. I guess I’m one of them, now. I’ve got a hack-job rebreather, a cough that won’t quit, sores that seep, and I’m always hungry. I guess we’re all Forgotten, niiii#*$))(&^!\

[FILE CORRUPTION]

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QQQ*23jksday, March 27 53 A.U.

52.95% left.

We managed to get our hands on a purifying until. Nothing fancy, just something leftover from a middle-class apartment. The gangers must have missed it during their initial sweep. Who can blame them? I don’t. Now we’ve got a chance. Now we can stop drinking that irradiated sludge that’s been seeping down the sidewalls of our “home.”

Home. There’s a word that’s lost its meaning. I wonder what they’re thinking up there. You can just make them out, you know. If the smog clears, and the sun’s just right, you can see the reflections off the orbiting hab units. See?

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They look like stars. It’s our new constellation. The Abandoner. That’s what I’ll call it.

Friday, May 22 53 A.U.

52.15% Left.

Fuckers.

Fucking gangers, fucking abandoners, just… fucking everyone. Maria was crying today. What am I supposed to say to her? That I couldn’t help protect her? That to be able to survive in this new world of ours, you have to out-bastard the other guys? Maybe that’s what she needs to hear. I needed to. I learned the hard way.

We’d made something of a permanent home inside one of the old CO2 reclamation facilities. It hadn’t been completely stripped of parts yet and most of the old equipment was inactive. Sure, we had to get past the defense grid drones first but we figured that would only help keep us safer. The perimeter drones would guard our backs and we might be able to get some more sleep.

We didn’t count on the gangers having a bio0385*$%JF#*

[FILE CORRUPTION]

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‘’’’’’’’`3958-ard to even wake up during what passes for morning around here. The old domed city has been decaying at an alarming rate now that there’s no one to monitor the systems. The toxicity levels of every substance around us are through the roof. It’s a wonder that we’re still alive.

Sunday, September 27 53 A.U.

51.45% Left.

We did it! We beat them at their own game, the bio-freaks! Sure, sure we had to try some risky shit but we made it. It was like throwing a piece of sodium into a beaker of water back in by early Chem days… except the sodium was a volatile mass of nuclear material and that beaker of water was the gangers’ main hidey-hole.

What an explosion.

Since then, we’ve had strays trickling in. The streets are a little safer and it’s obvious that we’re the ones with the power in the area, now. That’s good. We need to keep the fuckers down, keep reminding them of who’s in charge around here*W%&*%RHHHHGD{“

[FILE CORRUPTION]

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“!@#(DDDEH(aria wants to have a baby. I argued against it. I mean, I’m no doctor but I’m sure that all of the exposure we had to all of that radiation last year is going to have a permanent effect on our DNA. She doesn’t care. She just wants all of this to have been worth something. And I see her point. We fought the gangers, fought for supplies, hell, we fought against the city itself.

And we made it.

If she wants a baby, who am I to stand in her way?

Sunday, December 26 54 A.U.

46% Left.

Kreena. That’s her name. She’s our gift and we got her on a day that used to mean something. It means everything to us, now. The doc we rescued last month took a look at her and said she’s as well as can be expected. We know better. She’s strong. She’s already more adapted to this new world in one day of life than we are after having been out in it for over a year.

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We’ll raise her. She’ll know strength. She’ll know the truth about why our lives are like this. And she’ll know what’s coming. The Departure was only the first stage. There’s more comi_+_{}’455fjdd

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+@#_$)$NND&0.5% Left.

i tolddd herr…..

loookkkk to thhee aaaabandonnnnersssd

fffgire coomnes fropm the sssssdky

aabandonertas coomming top resdhapes thje woirtld

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Why do you tell stories?

Because I want to see other people react to them. My stories are largely told at the game table. They unfold as people interact with one another, and their pattern is never set. At least, it shouldn’t be. If it is, then the collaborative process that happens so wonderfully in game sessions is just gone. That’s where the magic is for me: seeing a story bloom, unfold, and hang in the air between the players. It may only last for a few moments, but it’s there, and it’s awesome.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice.

Trust your audience. In my case, this means people reading the setting, or rules that I write. It also means trusting the players at my game table. I always do my best to never underestimate them. If you give your players or readers room to think and react, they’ll surprise you every time. Surprise is good.

What’s the worst piece of writing/storytelling advice you’ve ever received?

“Write the way they want you to write.” It was simultaneously the best an worst advice. On the plus side, it helped me pass my Freshman Proficiency test when I was in 9th grade. On the downside, that’s the only venue in which that advice hold water when it comes to your own writing. Sure, if you’re freelancing and are given guidelines, you’ve got to follow them. If you’re writing for your own work though? You need to feel free to stretch yourself.

What goes into writing a strong character? Bonus round: give an example of a strong character.

A strong character needs to be flawed. A prefect character is boring unless the point of their perfection is to see it eventually fail. That’d be Checkov’s Gun for the personality set. Intro a perfect character, and your audience should expect that character’s perfection to fall by act three.

But I digress.

Strong characters need to have a life of their own. Love them or hate them, you need to remember them.

Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!

There’s this short story compilation called My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, where every story is a retold or new fairy tale. We forget how powerful such stories and folklore can be. Reading that book helped me remember what it was like to imagine after a while of that part of my mind being ground down.

Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

Slough. Pronounce it slew, or pronounce it sluff, it’s a word that sticks with me for no good reason. I’ll sometimes just tweet the word. It’s also one of those words that makes people uncomfortable, like moist.

I wish I had something more creative for this category, but fuck is always a go-to for me. Especially in phrases. “Fuck me running” is especially evocative for me. Just try and imagine how that would work. Doesn’t matter your sex, it’s awkward and delightful.

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

I love beer. All kinds, depending on the season. I’ve not gotten into brewing my own, but I’d love to. I also like a good whiskey.

What skills do you bring to help the humans win the inevitable robot war?

Win? None. However, once people with more skill than me help us win, I’ll be aces as helping us rebuild society. I’m a people person, so I can get groups together and… ah, who am I kidding? All hail our eventual robot overlords.

School Daze. Give us the Twitter pitch — 140 characters, what it’s about.

Did high school suck? Want to make it not suck? Play #SchoolDaze, and tell awesome stories. Be who you want, and make high school fun again.

(140 exactly. BOOM.)

We are often compelled to do this thing that we do as creators, so what drove you to it? What drove you to make games?

A feeling of inadequacy, combined with a desire to prove myself. That’s a lethal cocktail if you handle it the wrong way. I decided to start working on a campaign setting for Pathfinder after a one-shot adventure for a friend of mine. During the adventure, I had needed a destination for the ship they were on, so I made up this little town called Port-of-Call, a shitty dock town that served as a caravan jump-off for Kage. Kage was a techno-magical metal city in the middle of a desert, and run by a cabal of wizards called the Collegium. Well, Kage— pronounced Ka-shey; I was all clever and used a rough transliteration of the Japanese word for shadow—ended up becoming the focus of this campaign setting.

Because I simultaneously thought that I was making something cool, and wanted people to tell me how crappy my work was, I started just putting my stuff out there on a WordPress blog. Thing is, it turned out that I had some decent ideas. At the least, people weren’t telling me to pack it in. At the same time, I was going through some mental muck. Dealing with that muck helped me grow a backbone and realize for myself that my stuff was pretty good. Then I got ambitious.

I decided to take Kage and split it into three different sections, each of which would be expressed in a different game system—a suggestion from my friend Lenny, and a good one, too; take a look at what Fantasy Flight is doing with Star Wars—and my inability to properly manage that project led to its current on-the-shelf state. So when I was driving home from visiting friends in KC, and I got the idea for School Daze, I ran with it. I had the mental mojo, and the ability to see a project through; and I have done so. I’m super-proud of School Daze.

As for the campaign setting, well, I’m going to come back to it. When is the question.

What’s the difference between telling a story in a passive medium (say, books) and telling a story in a game?

In a book, you’ve got at least some control, or you tell yourself that you do. If you’re doing it right in a book, your characters take on lives of their own and make decisions that surprise you. That’s just good writing, there.

In a game, the narrative doesn’t belong to you if you’re the one running the game. The narrative belongs to your players and their characters. If you forget that, it’s to the detriment of your game. Sure, you plan out plot points, combats, challenges, etc. But at any point, the characters could say “fuck this, we’re going to become merchants.” Then? You roll with that. The game is theirs. You need to try to control the flow, moderate the chaos, but you need to follow their desires, or the game falls flat. It’d be like f the people in your book decided to just leave halfway through; without players, you have no game. If you have no game, you have no narrative.

What’s a pen-and-paper game everyone should be playing, but isn’t?

School Daze!

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Ahem.

I really love my game, I think you should play it. But there are other games that inspired it. Normally, I would just shout “PLAY FIASCO!” at you, and expect you to go play that amazing game immediately.

However, the question asked was about a game that no one is playing, but should. For that response, I give you Dread. Dread is a horror RPG that doesn’t use dice. Instead, it uses a Jenga tower for its conflict resolution. Where you would roll a die in most games, in Dread you have to make one or more successful pulls from the tower. If you knock the tower over, even accidentally, your character is out of the scenario.

On the surface, this all sounds hokey. I thought so, too. Then, fifteen minutes into my first session, everyone in the game was sitting about two feet away from the table, afraid to come close unless they needed to make a pull. The tower itself becomes a source of tension, which only adds to the horror of the scenario. It’s a peanut-butter-chocolate moment for me. It’s glorious. I’ve never experienced a game like it.

What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?

Next up for me is a new game called Terrorform. The earth is fucked, and humanity is going to fix it. There are orbital stations that can house humanity for generations while we terraform our own planet. Problem is, not everyone makes it off. The players will play those people, and will work to survive the terraforming. But when humanity comes back to their new/old home? It’s likely that the Forgotten will not remember their ancestors fondly.

I’m hoping to get this game written sooner rather than later, and to publish in 2013.

1 Comment

  • What a powerful short story! It hits hard and evokes a strong desire to read more. I gather it’s drawn from Terrorform universe and have no doubt a lot of players will want to write their own fiction set in this post-disaster Earth. Very cool!

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