If news about Hollywood and screenwriting passes your inbox on a regular basis, you probably heard about the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) strike that’s been going on since early May of this year.
While this is not the first such strike to happen in our generation (there was another one back in 1988, and more recently in 2007), it’s certainly the most unique of the three where its demands are concerned.
Some of the demands are standard grievances – a desire for greater compensation for writers, particularly when the residuals from streamers are involved – but the big sticking point this time around seems to be about something else: AI.
Why are writers from the WGA striking about AI?
In March of this year, OpenAI (the folks behind ChatGPT), published a study looking at potential labour market impacts with the adoption of AI. Writers were placed in the category of most likely to be impacted.
In other words, AI will not only greatly impact the way writers do their work but also whether they continue to do their work at all.
These developments haven’t gone unnoticed by the WGA.
It’s not that everyone is worried that screenwriters will be wholesale replaced by AI either (at least not this week).
Rather, the real sticking point is that writers want to have more say and agency in deciding how and when AI is used in the writing process.
Specifically, the WGA wants a claus in their contract that stipulates that no writer will be required to adapt anything that been output by AI. In other words, that they cannot be contractually obligated to complete or revise some partial screenplay produced by an AI.
What does this mean in practical terms?
Well, take for one that it’s not uncommon for screenwriters to get called in as either ghostwriters or as script doctors to polish up an already or mostly finished piece before it goes to production.
It’s not inconceivable that some unscrupulous studios might try to write the proverbial Shakespeare play out of a room of monkeys – only in this case the monkeys are ChatGPT.
It’s worth noting, therefore, that the WGA isn’t saying they refuse to work with any AI in the writing process – but rather, that the screenwriter can continue to control the production process of their work. Sometimes that might involve using an AI to clean a phrase, find synonyms, or just generate ideas – but it will be the writer’s discretion, and not the studios to decide in what capacity.
How much of a threat is AI to writers?
When this round of negotiations first began, there were clauses about AI brought to the table. However, because of how rapidly these tools advance, the initial concerns seem like the distance past – and because of this, it’s most likely going to be difficult to nail something down on writing that is future proof.
And speaking of the future, how much time do we have before AI has advanced to the point of either doing the bulk of the work or becoming a necessity in any creative process?
Well, it’s hard to say.
A quick Google search for “can AI replace screenwriters” turned up about a million and a half results, showing that it’s a topic a lot of people are wondering (and worrying about).
However, the results are anything but in agreement.
If you only read one headline, you might walk away convinced of one side or the other – but the presence of all these differing viewpoints (not to mention Reddit debates) suggests its very much uncertain.
So what are the facts on AI at this point in time?
AI cannot at present write a workable screenplay (except maybe as a curiosity … I wouldn’t be surprised if someone produces an AI screenplay as a sort of art house experiment).
When used as a tool, AI can cut down on the work and hours that go into producing a screenplay.
It’s also not clear who owns the rights to a script produced by an AI. If ChatGPT turns some prompt into a workable script, would that mean ChatGPT and its owners receive credit and ownership of it when it goes into production?
This might look like screenwriters are safe for the time being, but I suspect looks are deceiving.
Technology advances more rapidly than we suspect. Just look at the image generating apps like Midjourney. A year ago, it took sometimes a dozen rolls to get a workable image. Now, it often produces exactly what you need on the first go.
When ChatGPT and Bard become more fully integrated with the internet and live content, they will only learn so much faster. The time when an AI can produce a workable script might be closer than when we think.
And let’s not forget that studio heads – and the ones holding the wallets for the film and movie industries – are also pushing for this. It’s no secret that most writers are already undervalued for their time and contributions. If writing rooms across the room are already staffed by underpaid and overworked folks, how much greater will their woes be when AI starts sitting at the table?
As a writer myself, I’m not expecting to be competition free any time soon. The web is already filled with bots writing blogs, answering threads on socia media, and producing content that people read daily. I can’t help but feel it’s only a matter of time before we start reading books and watching TV that’s largely produced by AI.
And in case you’re curious what that could be like, an entirely AI driven show already exists on Twitch called Nothing, Forever, as a sort of insanity take on Seinfeld.
Dangerous Dan Slazinger strode up and triumphantly ripped the bejeweled crown off Oreo Lollipop’s head, shedding the disguise.
“I always suspected you were a bear,” snarled the brutish man in the two-piece suit. Behind him, a rent-a-cop held a World War II era Lee Enfield rifle in his hands, the barrel still smoking. “I bet those friends of yours were the same.”
Oreo clenched his bleeding gut. The bullet hadn’t necessarily caused a mortal wound, but it had guaranteed there would be no escape for him.
Over his shoulder he glanced, Mee Noi and James Bear had finished loading their haul of honey into the stolen van with the cheap spray paint job and were pulling out of the parking lot.
“One phone call, and the cops will be rounding them up shortly,” said Slazinger. “Your scheming ends here, bear.”
Oreo turned and looked up at Dan. The bear’s expression hardened.
“That’s what you think.” The bear opened his yellow jumper, revealing the primed C4 explosive. “Long live the revolution.”
Slazinger’s eyes widened in fear for the first and last time in his mean and brutish life.
Oreo detonated the explosives.
That’s how our three and a half hour session ended of Grant Howitt’s Honey Heist ended last night over Roll 20 – with a literal bang.
Two members of the gang managed to escape from Honey Con 2023 with a haul of honey valued at several million bucks, but at a great cost.
Dr. Kodiak, in frustration at his criminal ineptitude, lost his mind and went berserk, tearing feared security chief Beans McKenzie into two before escaping into the trees with the corpse.
And Oreo, well, we know how it ended for Oreo. He wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
For those not familiar with the concept, Honey Heist is a micro tabletop RPG. Similar in essence to other more well-known table tops such as Dungeons & Dragons or Call of Cthulhu, players sit around a table (real or virtual), roll dice and act out scenarios, and see where the story goes.
The twist here is that the players are given two crucial pieces of information:
1) The players need to put together an incredibly elaborate and precisely timed heist at a world famous event called Honey Con (where honey connoisseurs from across the globe gather – kind of like beer fest, but for honey) and;
2) The players are also bears.
I suppose I’m kidding when I say Honey Heist is the next tabletop RPG you need to play. But also I’m not.
Unless D&D or most other tabletop RPGs, Honey Heist is rules light. Remarkably so.
The majority of what you need to play has been scrawled out on a single page PDF and the rest is made up as you go along.
When I purchased it on Itch.io, it also came with some complementary PDFs such as character sheets and a disguise guide, but most were simply used for quick reference and we kept our notes on either paper at our desks or in a text editor in the other window.
(I previously incorrectly stated I bought it on Drive Thru RPG – I did buy it there as well, but it comes with fewer PDFs).
As far as table top RPGs go, it’s remarkably easy to set up and play – like I said, the rules are bareboned, meaning a lot comes down to improvisation. In the case of our group, that’s perfect.
I’ve been a DM or game master on and off for close to 25 years at this point, and a typical game (whether a one off or year long campaign) is 90% improv and 10% notes I jotted down earlier in the day.
Honey Heist, in this regard, was the perfect combination for a hilarious one off game night.
It did help, of course, that the folks I regularly play with are also fairly spontaneous.
They had no issue getting into character as either a 7-foot tall polar bear with a blond wig nor a washed-up black bear with designer jeans and a pink cowboy hat that all the NPCs swooned over.
But really, how can I talk about this game without the costumes and character setup.
Before play begins, everyone needs to roll their character. This is a fairly simple process using D6s and following what you get on a series of tables.
First, you roll for your experience level (mostly flavour text), type of bear (from honey badger to sun bear – each with its own special trait) and then role in the heist (driver, face, etc. where they also get a bonus on some actions).
This alone can give you plenty of interesting combinations which will in turn affect the way the crew approaches the heist itself.
The next part is rolling for costumes, and this is a real gem in itself. You first roll for colour and then clothing item for your tops and bottoms and then an optional hat.
The clothing combinations range from the absurd (bright yellow frilly bell bottoms) to the mundane (grey sweater) but most of the results are hilarious mismatched outfits.
The interesting part, is that these outfits matter in the game. One of the central hooks in the rules is that each bear has an HBS rating (a human believability score) that they have to role at any time they interact with humans or do something odd.
If they succeed, the humans continue to believe the bears are one of them (humans in this universe have a hard time distinguishing species and need clothing to help identify their brethren). If the bears fail, the humans get suspicious and might sound the alarm, putting the heist in jeopardy (in my case, I used “suspicion markers” so that if they failed while under suspicion, their identity would be revealed).
As an added gamble, players can roll for a hat – most of which are ridiculous and which might either improve or hinder their HBS.
With character creation out of the way, I divided the night into two stags: the planning step and the execution step.
In the planning step, I unveiled the map where the heist would take place, using the hide areas feature of Roll20 to give some of the buildings an air of mystery.
For this heist, I had rolled that Honey Con would be held at a Dangerous Wilderness Retreat run by a spoiled (and equally dangerous) trust fund type.
Before the game, I fleshed out the main villain a bit – “Dangerous” Dan Slazinger. He was a spoiled brat who used a handed from the old man to get into shipping and logistics, primarily for the mob.
He was also brutally anti-bear, as employees of his who were suspected of being bears were routinely found washed up on the shores of the Ottawa River (oh yes, he was also from Ottawa because the heist took place in nearby Vankleek Hill).
That such a man would now be running Honey Con might seem weird, but for Slazinger it was all about the money. Not only would he reap the profits from the event, but the big draw was that he would be revealing the Queen of All Bees who was once exiled and now returned (also an element of the game that was rolled for on one of its tables).
Only the twist – the Queen of All Bees was a fake, and they would use her “presence” as a charity con to reap in even more money.
Now, Slazinger wasn’t alone, he also had with him a fearful head of security named Beans McKenzie and a dozen hired goons armed with bear spray and batons.
As another twist, there would also be a second team of bears on site. Only instead of being thieves, they were led by the extreme bear radical Mean Stu who planned to destroy the honey in the hopes the market instability would ignite a glorious bear revolution around the world, ending human dominance once and for all.
Mechanically, I should mention, the game does have several interesting ideas.
There are two stats in the game – bear skills and criminal skills. Whenever you perform an action, you roll with one of the skills or the other and if you roll under, it succeeds.
Criminal skills are any actions critical to the heist (or in our case, the human world) and bear skills are, well, everything that involves being a bear (like mauling a man).
The hook here is that if you fail in one skill, it increases the other. So for instance, if your bear does terrible at being a criminal, he becomes frustrated and his bear nature threatens to take over. Too many failures and your bear either goes on a rampage or escapes as a master criminal, forgetting his bear nature. In either case, the game is over for that player.
This inevitably does some interesting things, such as encouraging other players to take actions when the party leader might be too close to losing his mind and rampaging off as a bear.
Some rolls can be made easier by having advantage (rolling a second die and choosing the lower of the two), but almost every roll in the game felt tense because the consequences were so dire.
In a way, it reminded me of sanity checks in Call of Cthulhu, and the ever present danger of your investigator just losing it from one bad roll. Certainly keeps the stakes high.
Anyways, returning to the planning, the players were told some of this (but not the twists) but then gave them the floor to figure things out.
Here, I made another rule up where I gave them each 3 dice they could use to gather information or procure supplies before the run – if they passed they got what they were looking for, or if failed they went in a little more blind and empty handed.
The crew used their dice to gather all the information I had available. In total, I offered them things like details on the security systems, the location of a World War II weapons cache, etc. They then used what they had left to get a rope and grapple – which never got used – and steal a van to help get them in and out with the honey.
Since they neglected to get the itinerary of the event, the crew decided they would play a lot of it by ear – get into the event early and scope it out from within.
When the actual heist phase started, they arrived at the outskirts early in the morning to take in what they could. When they were ready, they followed a stream of vehicles to the first checkpoint.
Almost immediately, things went a little haywire. As my players frequently commented, they were bears, after all.
Mee Noi momentarily forgot how to drive and slammed the truck into the gate, causing the guards to get upset.
Dr. Kodiak then tried to apologize for them but ended up growling and causing suspicion.
Only after a few successful rolls did they manage to get inside, but not without an air of suspicion around them.
From there, our bears gathered what info they could and slowly moved towards their objective – a massive cache of honey tucked away in a super vault inside an old mausoleum.
While I won’t recount the whole three hours from there, some highlights included:
Convincing Beans McKenzie that there was a nest of bears hidden in a nearby cedar (there wasn’t, it was just a ruse), which he proceeded to torch with a flamethrower and give the gang a chance to snoop around while he was occupied.
James Bear was so convincingly human and well dressed, that Honey Con attendants regularly made passed at him and flirted with him.
A brutal bear battle on the docs between our crew and Mean Stu, who accused them of being traitors to the cause of the glorious bear revolution.
A honey eating contest that went bad – Oreo went into a bear frenzy and was apprehended by security.
While imprisoned, Oreo successfully turned his captors against them, by convincing them of a shared cross-species bond and indoctrinating them with extreme leftist ideologies (the need to form a union) in order to distract the guards and eventually be rescued.
The gang discovering the queen bee costume and using it to convince the final guard at the super vault that they just wanted to inspect the honey, before making it out with a haul.
Dr. Kodiak losing his mind and going full bear on McKenzie in a final confrontation that involve rending the wicked security man apart and then fleeing into the woods to devour the corpse.
Oreo’s glorious (and explosive) sacrifice with C4 they procured from the weapons bunker.
Mee Noi and James Bear escaping with the honey, only to go on a six day bender and eat it all.
We played our heist out on Roll20 using Discord. I’ve no doubt that this is a game that is amazing to play in person over the table with dice and beers.
It’s certainly possible to stretch it out to a few sessions – for instance, it could be a multi-part heist, or involve a more elaborate preparation phase – but really, going from start to finish in one night is a perfect bite of comedy RPG.
For a pay what you will, there are definitely other options out there, but few are likely as interesting engines for pure chaos or meticulous heist planning as Honey Heist.