Wednesday, December 29, 2010

LOCUS Reviews—Vicksburg Dead Recommended

Lois Tilton reviews IGMS #20.

Some she liked, some she didn’t; some she liked at first, and some she liked all the way through.

Special recognition to Jens Rushing for her story, ‘The Vicksburg Dead.’

--Scott M. Roberts

Assistant Editor, IGMS

Monday, December 27, 2010

The American—Bruce Worden

Like many stories, The American grew out of a collection of ideas. It began with the concept of a singularity, but I wanted to use the concept in a new way. At some point I read that the United States spends more on its military than all other countries in the world combined. That may be an exaggeration, but it is certainly true that the U.S. accounts for a strikingly disproportionate fraction of the world’s defense spending. From this observation came the idea that the paranoid preoccupation with security, when carried to its logical conclusion, might result in a limitless appetite for information and an obsessive commitment to secrecy. In other words, it might result in a State that is both expansionist and closed – the characteristics of a black hole. The idea for The American was born.

Someone once said that good science fiction stories take place at the edge of ideas, where the ordinary meets the extraordinary. So the-american I began to wonder what would happen at the “event horizon,” the area where regular people came in contact with the looming but unknowable force personified by the Americans. How would ordinary people react? With denial? Resignation? Violence? The American is a story about how one woman reacts. She is confronted with something unimaginably more powerful than herself - something that, from her point of view, might as well be a god. In classical mythology, Zeus often took the form of animals for his liaisons on earth. From this came the idea that the eponymous American in the story might assume the form of a stag, a creature that is powerful, solitary, and mythical.

Once the pieces were in place, the first draft of the story came out fairly easily. Then the work began. Easy birth, rough childhood. While most of the major elements remain in the final version, I rewrote the story several times over a period of months, at one point cutting its length by 25% (a painful experience), before submitting to IGMS. But I think the rewrites made it a better story, and with some helpful suggestions from IGMS editor Edmund Schubert, this final version says what I wanted to say. I hope you enjoy it.

--Bruce Worden

Monday, December 20, 2010

Miracle on Massachusetts Avenue

Both sides of my family lived in Cambridge, MA on the river side of Massachusetts Avenue from 1866 to 1958 - all of them from the British Isles. When I was born, my family had moved farther out to the suburbs of Boston, but still only a few blocks “off the Ave.” That street, which meanders from Central Mass through Cambridge and across the Charles River to Boston was a big part of my life.

miracle When I was old enough, my mother let me walk the few blocks to Mass. Ave. by myself, and I haunted the local library, bought every issue of every comic that had Superman on the cover and spent most Saturdays at the movie theater with my little sister. I loved a good story.

Maybe, it was because being lucky enough to live in the same household as my Irish immigrant great grandmother, I heard a few.

Some scared me enough to pull the covers over my head and at the same time, thrill me with the delicious details of the Banshee, the Death Coach, the three knocks and the fairies of all shapes and sizes. She swore they were all true.

Years later, my mother Patricia, was diagnosed with cancer and I spent many a day driving her to Boston for treatments. She had the gift of gab, and at my prompting, she regaled me with hours of stories about our family. I had recently become interested in genealogy and was trying to fill in the family history.

One of the stories was about the day her great grandmother died. Sadly, it was on the birthday that she finally received a long wanted pair of new roller skates. She was ten years old.

A few years after my mother’s death, I thought I’d pay tribute to her and our Great Grandmothers’ stories, tying the historical in with the fantastical in, “Miracle on Massachusetts Avenue”.

--Maureen Power

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sympathy of a Gun—Gary Kloster

So the question usually goes, where did you get the idea for this story? Sympathy of a Gun started out as a story that was all about ideas. I wrote about the problems I had with most alien invasion stories, the relationship that existed in my head between AI's and animal domestication, and why space travel actually kind of sucks. Very Important Ideas went into this story.

The first draft ended up being really long and boring.

sympathy-of-a-gun That's the thing with ideas. They may be the critical skeleton of any story, but those bones are dry when they're bare. They need to be shrouded in the flesh and blood of conflict and character. Without drama, without soap opera, an idea is an essay, not a story. So the question shouldn't be, where did I get the idea for this story? The question should be, what made the ideas in this story work?

Emily. The main character.

Bitter and smart, terrified and pissed. She's confrontational, demanding, a troublemaker. One of those people who seem to exist just to argue. That's what made this story work. Before she popped into my head, all those ideas were just lying there, useless. Boring.

Until Emily barged in and gave those ideas meaning. She might be a made up person, but I hope that you can see her when you read the story. Because if you do, if you can know her and understand her for a little bit, then the story, and all of its ideas, work.



--Gary Kloster

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

IGMS issue #20

Now available, issue #20 of Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show, featuring:

Featured Stories -

The Never, Never Wizard of Apalachicola - by Jason Sanford

Sympathy of a Gun - by Gary Kloster

The American - by Bruce Worden

The Vicksburg Dead - by Jens Rushing

Beneath the Shadow of the Dragon - by Erin Cashier

Holiday Bonuses -

The Wisemen - by Orson Scott Card

Miracle on Massachusetts Avenue - by Maureen Power

Audio Story - Beneath the Shadow of the Dragon

Plus - Darrell Schweitzer's interview with Ellen Datlow

Friday, December 03, 2010

InterGalactic Medicine Show - issue #20 - coming soon

Coming next week, issue #20 of Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show, featuring:

The Never, Never Wizard of Apalachicola - by Jason Sanford

Sympathy of a Gun - by Gary Kloster

The American - by Bruce Worden

The Vicksburg Dead - by Jens Rushing

Beneath the Shadow of the Dragon - by Erin Cashier

Holiday Bonuses -

The Wisemen - by Orson Scott Card

Miracle on Massachusetts Avenue - by Maureen Power

Audio Story - Beneath the Shadow of the Dragon

Plus - Darrell Schweitzer's interview with Ellen Datlow


Thursday, December 02, 2010

Issue #20—Intergalactic Medicine Show

Issue #20 should be out some time early next week—and let me tell you, I am excited.  Some of the best short fiction I’ve read in a while will appear in our ever-loving virtual pages.  From a sci-fi reimagining of the Christmas Story (by Orson Scott Card, no less), to the effects of a transhuman singularity on a small Polish farm, this issue of Intergalactic Medicine Show is chock-a-block full of speculative goodness.

See you then!

--Scott M. Roberts

Assistant Editor, IGMS

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Sideshow Arcade: No FATE But What You Make

The systems I’ve reviewed previously are all what are called d20 systems: the chief randomization mechanic relies on rolling a dice with 20 sides.  OF COURSE there are different systems; Top Secret, which I mentioned in my first foray on this line of thinking uses a system based on a ten sided die.  Damage amounts are handled by other dice: 8 sided, 4 sided, even the rare 12 sided dice, or 2-sided (we call those “coins” in my world.) 

The FATE system eschews the exotically sided dice for its system.  Nothing more is needed than four normal, six-sided dice.

But WAIT! cry the purveyors of fine plastic gaming effluvia.  What about merchandising?  What about aesthetic value?  What about the sheer pleasure of hearing seven or eight dodecahedrons spill out of your palms to tumble across a table? 

There’s some merit in that argument, but I think that a game should be more than just the dice you’re rolling.  If you’re intent on buying specialized dice, I’ll note that FATE dice are available at your local retailer, or for order online. 


In other gaming systems, there’s a target number (we’ll use Difficulty Rating (DR) here) to hit in order to accomplish something.  For example, jumping across a chasm might have a DR of 20.  Generally, you’d use your Jump skill to oppose the DR; roll a 20 sided die, add your Jump skill modifier, and if you succeed, you cross; if you fail you drop. 

Fate’s system is similar, but instead of a target number it uses a ladder of adjectives: Abysmal to Legendary.  Envision it like this:

  • Legendary (+6)
  • Epic (+5)
  • Superb (+4)
  • Great (+3)
  • G00d (+2)
  • Fair (+1)
  • Average (0)
  • Mediocre (-1)
  • Poor (-2)
  • Miserable (-3)
  • Abysmal (-4)

The adjective describes the difficulty of the challenge.  Using the previous example, jumping over that chasm is going to take an Epic effort; your skill at Jumping is Fair.  Roll the dice!  For every 5 or 6, climb one step up the ladder.  For every 1 or 2, move down the ladder.  3s and 4s don’t provide a bonus or a penalty.  You’ve only got four dice, so in order to jump the chasm successfully, you’ll need to roll all 5s and 6s.  Not an easy feat…


Another way that the Fate system differs from d20 systems is in the way that characters are created.  Instead of choosing race, class, rolling attributes, etc., you tell the character’s back story in phases.  With each phase, you choose skills that the character acquires during that period of his life.

Here’s the thing: with Fate, there are no set system-defined skills.  You make them up as you tell the character’s story.  As your campaign progresses, it’s up to you to decide how a skill fits a particular challenge, and how to justify its use to your Game Master.

Using the Jump example above: Ed’s character, Milan, doesn’t have the Jump skill, but he does have a skill called Acrobatic.  It’s not a huge stretch to see that the two skills may be related; the GM allows Milan to jump the chasm using his Acrobatic skill.

Characters may have between 5-8 phases of creation; it’s up to the GM to decide.  In addition to choosing skills, players choose aspects for their characters.  An Aspect is an element to describe the character.  Things like Ugly as Sin, Dapper, Greedy, or Salt-of-the-Earth.  Long-standing enemies can be taken as Aspects; so can places.  The number of aspects per phase is up to the GM. 

The point of Aspects is to use them to either get a reroll, or to change one die to a 5 or 6.  So: poor Milan didn’t quite roll well enough to make that jump; he’s one step away from the Epic effort needed to clear the chasm.  Ed decides to invoke Milan’s aspect, Circus Freak, and explains that Milan’s legs are powerful from being conditioned during his time as Kangaroo Boy in Barney and Bumley’s Big Top.  The GM decides to allow it; Ed changes one 3 to a 6, and sighs in satisfaction as Milan makes it safely to the other side of the chasm.

Note that Aspects can also be used against characters.  While Circus Freak may serve Milan well when he has to jump over chasms, it’s a detriment when he’s trying to convince Horatio Stalwart that he’s a serious and viable contender for entry into the League of Super Secret Financiers.  The GM can invoke Circus Freak to force Milan to do something ridiculous and inappropriate—like smash a banana cream-pie into his own face in order to “impress” Stalwart.

Of course, when the GM does that, the character gets a Fate Point…


Fate points can be used simply to give a bonus to any roll a player makes, hiking them up a single step on the ladder.  More powerfully, they can be used to gain an amount of narrative control over the story.  Locked in a jail, and need a hairpin to try to pick the lock?  Spend a fate point, and you’ll find a hairpin beneath the pallet of straw in the corner.  Exploring a run-down mansion?  Spend a fate point, and you find a secret door that leads to the basement, bypassing the locked door…

The way fate points can be used—especially in conjunction with Aspects—is varied.  Their use largely depends on the way your GM wants to adjudicate the game.  But it’s a powerful and thrilling concept.


I currently play a version of Fate called Spirit of the Century.  As a writer, I *love* its focus on story, and the ability of the players to drive the narrative.  The Fate system is flexible, but a bit nebulous at times; it’s obvious that it’s not quite as polished as other systems.  (For good reason: the Fate system is free.)  It’s power comes from pushing most of the rule-making onto the GM and Players; you need the right type of group for that configuration to work.

For what it’s worth, in my group there are two people who’ve never played an RPG before, ever; three people who have played RPGs but never a Fate-based system.  Only the GM has played Fate before.  We manage to have a good ol’ time.

-- Scott M. Roberts