games writing

Dragon Age Inquisition – the storytelling do’s and don’ts

By this stage of my life, people should know better than to give me video games for Christmas, and I should know better than to ask for them.

But we all do things against our better judgement, and that’s why I spent most of the last two months slouched on the mezzanine, playing the absolute shit out of Dragon Age: Inquisition when I should have been writing regular blog posts, or indeed books.

On the other hand, playing DAI for so long – more than 100 hours! – made me think an awful lot about what worked, what didn’t, which parts of its epic storyline were compelling and which made me want to drink bleach. And so, much as I did with Arkham City and Guild Wars II (at length), I’d like to look at the game from a writing perspective, and turn my timewasting into a set of storytelling lessons.

This is how I justify my life, and the wasting thereof. Please indulge me.

(WARNING: Spoilers! Not a huge amount, but some!)

Screw with expectations, but then live up to them

Dragon Age: Origins amassed a massive body of fans (myself included) who loved its story and characters; DA2 had problems, but still built on that foundation and set up a situation that the new game needed to follow up. So DAI launched with many ideas about what it should be and what it should include – and then struck its own balance between those preconceived ideas and desires and a variety of new concepts and content, taking the franchise in new directions (some of which are successful). Take the same attitude to your writing – don’t be hidebound by what readers think you’re going to write, but surprise them by striking out in a new direction while still writing with the same craft and level of polish. Readers may think they want The Comfortable Further Adventures of X, but they’re really attracted to your voice and skill; give them more of that, while fucking with expectations, and they will (hopefully) love you for it.

Wherever you set your stakes, make them matter

DAI is filled with adventures large and small, some of which feel urgent and engaging and some of which do not. The ones that work have genuine consequences and payoffs – expressed in character/story terms – while the ones that don’t just give you better equipment and no-one discusses them again. The first lot of quests are the ones that stay with me and made the game interesting; the second are already forgotten. So too with your own plotlines; stakes need to engage the reader on a personal level, not just be a way of making your character collect plot tokens or better equipment for the important scenes.

Endings need to matter as well

The end of your story is the payoff of everything that’s gone before, and it needs to connect up with everything that’s gone before. It needs to have impact, it needs to be engaging, it needs interaction and choices and it needs to encompass the themes you’ve established. More to the point, it needs to be more than an uncomplicated two-stage boss fight that you win by just hitting one guy over and over again with your best attacks, followed by an unsatisfying denouement.

Someone please travel back in time and explain this to the DAI development team.

Worldbuilding needs to be a sometimes food

Writers love worldbuilding, and readers/players love the feeling that they’re engaged in an almost-real place. But you can convey that feeling with a light touch, and by dropping details into scenes so that readers take them on board almost without noticing. Or, like DAI, you can have chunk after chunk of exposition scattered around the narrative space, communicated in books, letters, paintings, mosaics, conversations and dream sequences, so that you have to stop engaging with the story/game in order to read them.

I’m sure there are people who love this level of detail, for whom learning about the world of Thedas is the entire point of the game. I’m just saying that they’re wrong. And as writers, those are not the readers you need to be serving.

Go for killer, not filler

Inquisition positions your character as someone of immense importance, a world-changer who is the only hope of stopping the apocalypse. It also asks you to collect hunks of iron, pick flowers, kill assorted bandits and generally piss-fart around the world doing micro-errands in true MMO style. The result is a massive disjunct between how you’re supposed to see yourself and how you actually behave, and a whole lot of boring crap to do over that 100+ hours of playtime. Do not do this in your fiction! Do not make characters perform meaningless or boring-to-the-reader tasks just because they’re ‘realistic’ or the connective tissue you think is needed between the interesting bits! If you write scenes that are engaging and meaningful, you can bridge them with a paragraph or a handwave; better that than a scene where your hero slowly hunts and butchers mountain goats to make blankets for a bunch of people that she never talks to again.

It always comes back to character

People focus on NPCs and relationships as the selling points of BioWare games, and that’s because they’re (mostly) the strongest and most engaging part. DAI is no different, and the game is at its best when you’re connecting with those characters, exploring their stories and deciding how your priorities align with theirs. The character mix isn’t as strong as in the two previous games – there are too many NPCs, some of whom (well, mostly Sera) are boring or terrible – but there are many good characters who will draw you in. In prose, you need to make readers care about your characters, their relationships and their journeys; do that  and the story and worldbuilding can almost take care of itself.

So don’t run out of character stuff

I played DAI for nearly 110 hours. The first 70-odd hours were (on the whole) terrific, because I punched monsters and explored the Deep Roads and made swords AND THEN I went and told my special digital friends about it. We laughed, we cried, we kicked evil in the dick; it was great. And then I hit the point where they had nothing new to say; where every NPC had reached the end of their personal story and arc.

And I still had 25+ hours of game to play.

They were boring.

Without character hooks, without interplay, without an emotional payoff that you can attach a face to, your story (probably) just ain’t that interesting. It’s a string of events and situations that don’t matter to the people in them – and that means it doesn’t matter to the reader. So don’t keep the plot going if there isn’t any character-meaningful story going along with it; wrap it up then and there.

Good villains are hard to write

Inquisition‘s villain is kind of rubbish, but I can’t give BioWare too much stick for that. It’s easy to write a bad guy who rants and raves and puts into play a poorly-thought out plan that doesn’t really make any sense. I know, I’ve done it (currently rewriting it). Going beyond that is difficult; you have to give your villain a personality people can connect with but still want to see defeated, you have to let them appear multiple times and engage with characters to build up their mystique, and you have to make their nefarious plan hang together at the end and be more than ‘he turns up and punches EVERYONE’.

Alternatively, he should be Doctor Doom. Who is the opposite of so many of those things, but still AMAZEBALLS.

Maybe next game.

So is good romance

The first Dragon Age game treated romance as a vending machine where you constantly gave NPCs presents and said nice things until sex fell out and you got a dodgy underwear-on cutscene. DA2 made you wait for specific opportunities – I call them sex windows – to flirt with NPCs, but every NPC was totally into you so you could pick one and just mash the heart option until you were rewarded with a dodgy underwear-on cutscene. DAI continues with the sex window mechanic, but gives NPCs specific sexualities and preferences, so you can in fact waste the entire game trying to chat someone up until she reveals at the 60-hour mark that she’s not into girls and now it’s too late to sex someone else and DAMNIT I JUST LOST THE GAME no cutscene for me.

What I’m trying to say is that writing a believable, engaging romance is hard. It probably looks more like the DAI version than the other two. But it’s still hard. And no, not ‘hard’ in a dirty way. For god’s sake, grow up.

Moral choices are more interesting than strategic choices

Dragon Age Origins was full of difficult moral choices, many of which boiled down to ‘do the right thing and suffer a penalty, or do something terrible and get a bonus’. It was simplistic and overdone, but by god it worked; that and the chance to sex up Morrigan/Alastair were the big drawcards of the game. Inquisition’s choices, on the other hand, mostly defaults to ‘choose one kind of benefit or a different kind of benefit’, with moral choices being either peripheral or non-existent. And I’m sure there is a kind of reader who would prefer that, who is not interested in messy stuff about feelings and ethics and consequences and more interested in effective tactics and strategies for taking down the Big Bad in the faster, smoothest and least difficult way.

Do not write books for these people. Trust me.

Never be afraid to go for a hit of real emotion

Video games tend to be a shallow and simplistic medium in many ways, and DAI is no different; running around the Hinterlands setting fire to bandits is not deep. But there’s a moment about 1/3 of the way in, at a point where everything has gone wrong and a group of people come together to find some kind of way to endure and continue… it gave me chills. Hell, it nearly made me cry. It was lightning in a bottle, nothing else in the game mattered like that and it won’t work when I play it again – but I will remember that moment for years, will remember it long after I forget the boss fight at the end oh shit I already forgot that bit.

You can do that. You can aim for that. You can write that moment when everything MATTERS. And if you can do that even once in a story, your story will fucking own. So aim for that and give it everything you’ve got.

Do not dress your main character in beige pyjamas while they’re running around a castle or talking with people about important stuff

Just don’t.

I shouldn’t have to tell you this, damnit.


Games for writers

I like games.

This comes as no surprise, I know; it’s about as shocking as learning that I like comics, beer or swearing. But I like games a lot, and I’ve written before about how roleplaying games (as well as story-telling games like Storium) can contain lessons relevant to writers as well as to 9th-level wizards looking to master cloudkill.

Anyway, GenCon (the annual giant gamer nerd-prom) was last weekend, and to mark it there’s been an RPGaDay hashtag and commentary program doing the rounds. (I’ve been posting notes on my Google + account, if that is a thing that might interest you.) Games have been on my mind, but so has writing – and it occurred to me that while I’ve made general comments about games (specifically RPGs) being good resources for writers, I’ve not ever spelled out which games might help with that.


Here, then, are five games that set out to do very particular things and help create or facilitate very particular kinds of stories, and that do that in a way that can directly translate into key lessons for writers. You should check them out – they’re smart, they’re fun, they’re generally pretty cheap and they can do good things for your brain and your words.


Spark is a toolkit for creating and running games that focus on a core set of themes. Players and GM collaborate on outlining a world/setting and three broad themes (Beliefs), such as ‘Everyone has a price’ or ‘You are your culture’, that are expressed through it and its various factions. Characters have their own Beliefs that align with or challenge those setting Beliefs, along with a handful of broad stats and skills.

Play revolves around collaboratively setting up scenes with three components – a Platform (situation), a Tilt (something that pushes PCs to engage with the situation) and a Question (what is to be solved/discovered). The aim is to create a Question that challenges a setting Belief and that pushes the PCs into conflict – with factions, with each other and with their own Beliefs – in order to follow their own agendas.

Writing lesson: Stories have subtext, subtext is driven by theme, and theme can be embedded in every scene and external plot driver. Push characters to question those beliefs, and to engage directly with theme, and you can create rich, complex stories.

My Life With Master

The default setting of My Life With Master is 19th-century Europe, where a scheming Master sends his twisted minions out to prey upon local villagers for unspeakable purposes – and you play the minions, forced and cajoled into escalating monstrousness. Characters have only two stats, Self-Loathing (how much you hate yourself for obeying your Master) and Weariness (the degree to which you’re given up resisting), along with a pair of unique, non-numerical strengths and weaknesses.

Play has a specific rhythm that builds up inexorably over time. The Master applies increasing emotional pressure on his minions, forcing them to terrorise the villagers – but also giving them opportunities to make connections and friends. The stakes escalate and the minions do worse and worse things to those they wish to love until one of them overcomes control and stands up to the Master. Which doesn’t guarantee a happy ending, mind you.

Writing lesson: Internal conflicts can as powerful as external ones, especially if that conflict turns into action. A character who doesn’t want to do something but has to do it anyway, who tries to free themselves from control (whether they succeed or fail), can be fascinating.


Based on the Apocalypse World system, Monsterhearts trims that down and sexes it up to create a game about supernatural powers and teenage passions. Players choose a ‘playbook’ for a particular archetype, from vampire and werewolf to clique leader or misunderstood teen, and quickly finetune it with abilities and benefits. They then connect characters together with ‘Strings’, knots of emotional connection to help them influence (or be influenced by) each other.

What happens in a game of Monsterhearts? Teenagers fall in love, have sex, meddle with the occult and end up doing terrible things in the name of desire. To get what they want – each other – PCs have to use up their Strings and create new ones. Anything meaningful requires a roll, and failure (and sometimes success) enacts a heavy price. And at some point, PCs are bound to lose control and lash out at those around them, possibly supernaturally, only to regret it later.

Writing lesson: Desire, fear, love, hate, passion… these things can be as much of a plot driver as any kind of external situation or control. Characters who act from emotion push stories forward, as much with their mistakes as their successes, and you can find great drama in the aftermath.


I’ve talked about Fiasco before, but that’s because it’s great – a toolkit for making Coen Brothers/Breaking Bad/plan-gone-wrong stories in almost any genre. Using a ‘playset’ of ideas based on a broad story or setting concept, such as ‘small town news channel’ or ‘1930s transatlantic ocean liner’, players quickly sketch out characters, their relationships and three or more elements attached to those relationships – a Place, an Object and a Need.

Players then take turns to create scenes, either framing one around their character or deciding on the outcomes, and assigning white/black (good/bad) dice around the table. At the midpoint, players roll dice to introduce a twist and then continue. While the Place and Object play important roles, it’s the Need (and the Relationship connected to it) that drive play to the bitter, tally-up-your-dice-and-roll-’em, most-of-you-are-fucked-now end.

Writing lesson: Some pundits say there are only 20 stories, or 12, or seven, or three. But if you want to get really reductive, there’s only one – what will you do to get what you want? Boil everything down to that one question, then write up from there, and you get a gut-punch narrative.


While all those other games are about character, Microscope is something completely different – a game about history and the big picture. Players choose a concept, such as ‘an ancient empire rises and falls’, pick a beginning and an end for the timeline, and collaborate on setting and tone elements like ‘magic exists’, ‘magic doesn’t exist’, ‘aliens’, ‘robots’ or whatever. No character creation; no GM.

Players then take turns to create sub-Periods within the timeline, to populate Periods with key Events or to suggest Scenes for Events. You can jump around in time freely, adding Periods at any point. Once some groundwork is laid, players can zoom in to play out a Scene in detail or discuss an event, picking out specific elements (Legacies) to colour and influence the next round of establishment, until you can stitch a convincing narrative line from the timeline’s start to its end.

Writing lesson: Not everything is about character, and some stories are bigger than people. But if you pick a point and zoom in, you can crystallise all that scope into something we can connect to, something with a face, and through that create something grand that feels convincing.

In other news, we have an apartment, we move at the end of the week, we’re packing and spending all the money we can spare on the process.

Good times. Good times.

Please send bourbon and all your drugs.

games writing

What’s the Storium, morning glorium?

If you’re on Twitter, Kickstarter or probably every other site online, you’ve probably heard about Storium – it made a big crowdfunding splash back in April/May, raising like a quarter of a million dollars and drawing in an astounding number of writers, artists and game designers to create content.

If you somehow managed to miss all of that… well. Storium is an online storytelling game, as the above logo indicates – although it’s one where ‘game’ plays a very distant second fiddle to ‘storytelling’. My favorite annotated bibliography maker Jebiah Sommer describes it as primarily a platform for collaborative writing, where contributors use prompts to guide their efforts and work towards building a coherent story. There are RPG-like elements in there, such as one contributor being a ‘Narrator’ that directs the group effort and the prompts being measured out using virtual cards, but they’re pretty light, and a like-minded group could probably ignore all that if desired and just use the clean, intuitive online platform to write-jam-party together.

I’ve been a Storium playtester since last year, through the Alpha test (which was quite different) and the Beta into what is now the… I think it’s the open Beta? Not sure. Anyway, I’ve been using it for a while, and currently have two games/stories on the hop – Zero Zero One, a cyberpunk story about memory husking and treacherous corporations, and Ravenloft Redux, an experiment in turning a old location-based D&D adventure into a more narrative experience. And those games are a lot of fun; they don’t replace roleplaying for me, but they’re an enjoyable aside.

Enjoyable and educational. Because Storium is also a concrete demonstration of some key principles of writing, and I’d like to look now at five things using it has borne home for me.

Plot is character

In Storium, every player (other than the Narrator) controls a single character, designed once the stage has been set and the context/setting/genre decided. Characters are sketched lightly using prompt cards – a central concept with Strengths, Weaknesses and Suplots attached to it. Backgrounds can be added/written to your heart’s content, but aren’t necessary. Once play starts, the Narrator sets a scene with a situation or event and then the players write their characters’ actions and responses, with (some) freedom to also write the way the scene changes as a result. Players write back-and-forth, possibly with occasional extra inputs from the Narrator, until things are resolved and the scene ends.

The key point here is that every scene revolves around these characters – what they feel, what they say and (especially) what they do. If you set up a scene and no-one acts, then nothing happens – all you have is a dead screen. There’s no option for a scene without characters – I mean, you can write it, but only by ignoring all the structure that’s set-up. Importantly, Narrators don’t have characters (well, not in the same way) and can’t write a scene that just involves other people doing stuff – they have to open it up and let the main characters drive the story.

The stuff around characters matters too

Most of Storium’s stretch goals were about bringing in well-known creators to make worlds – sets of prompt cards and the story concepts attached to them – and Narrators can create their own from scratch as well. In addition to their base cards, characters can pick up Goals and Assets to help define them, while Narrators have sets of Place, Character and Obstacle cards. (The full Storium release, due later in the year, also promises other non-card world material, such as opening scenes, setting data dumps and so on.) As play progresses, more of these cards come into play to sketch out the world and reflect the story.

Call it a world, a setting, a context – stories have to happen somewhere, not against a blank backdrop. Characters may drive the story, but the story is better if they drive through interesting scenery . A bland set of setting elements don’t have to damage a story – you can do a lot with stock elements, especially if you tweak them here and there – but a rich, vivid set gives it real colour and flavour. Maybe too much flavour – you have to be careful not to overload things and pull the spotlight off the characters. (Storium gets the balance pretty right, but I do wonder how much fun some of these heavily-defined worlds will be to work with.) Keep the focus on the character, but make sure what’s outside the spotlight throws up fascinating shadows.

Conflict drives story

Storium players have their characters and associated cards, so what does the Narrator have? She has Challenges – the Character and Obstacle cards, each of which is given a numerical rating when put into play. That number is the amount of player cards that have to be played on that challenge before it’s met in some way. Scenes end when all the challenges are met – and once players write their moves to demonstrate how those elements of the character impact the challenge. With limits on how many and what types of cards can be played by each character in each scene, there are lots of ways in which challenges can be met and scenes can unfold.

You can pitch a scene where characters just talk to each other, and for some people I’m sure that’s fun – but nothing actually happens until the main characters rise to meet conflicts, either pitting themselves against other characters or against situational dangers and problems. Conflicts bring the drama, the tension, the uncertainty – even if it’s uncertainty about how characters will overcome them (and the price they pay in doing so) rather than whether they overcome them. A story without conflict is a squashed doughnut, edible but unappetising – or possibly an inappropriate metaphor that doesn’t make sense. Anyway, they suck. Don’t write them.

Failure is as interesting as success

Depending on the cards that are played on it, every challenge has a Strong, Weak or Neutral outcome – and players, not the Narrator, write the Strong and Weak outcomes. The player of the last card gets to decide how their character has met the challenge and what that means – whether they get what they want or not and how that impacts the rest of the scene, the next challenge and the rest of the characters. Narrators write neutral outcomes, which tend to maintain the status quo or have a smaller, more ambiguous impact on the story – they’re serviceable, but they’re not as much fun as writing it yourself.

The single smartest thing in Storium may be the way challenges are handled. Letting players write both good and bad outcomes is inspired – because the story remains focused on them, even if things aren’t going their way. Narrators get to shape this to an extent by suggesting strong/weak outcomes for each challenge card – and the best pre-written ones all give broad suggestions, with weak/failure outcomes that keep the story going but introduce complications, rather than grinding things to a halt. It’s glorious stuff; it means that failures are fascinating, maybe even more so than successes, and both are much more engaging than neutral coasting.


Pacing is hard

How many challenges should you use in a scene? Is one 6-point challenge easier or harder than two 3-point challenges? Is it better to conserve your Strengths or to alternate them with Weaknesses? How often should the Narrator hand out Asset and Goal cards? Are Asset and Goal cards worth playing? These are the questions that really affect the pace and flow of play/story, and Storium doesn’t give a lot of guidance on the best way to answer them – so pacing is a really tricky beast, especially on a platform where players might go days or weeks between moves. It’s the roughest part of the product, and I hope they give more clarity once the full release goes live.

Just as every Storium game is its own beast and needs its own unique practices to keep things interesting and moving, so does your writing. Your pacing and flow issues might not relate to card play, but they’re still there and they’ll probably never go away. You just gotta try different things until you find something that works – and it might work differently in the next project.

Well, I wrote a lot more on that topic that I’d planned. That either means it’s super interesting or that I get carried away – you decide.

Anyway, in summary: Storium’s pretty cool. And like any platform that you can use for telling stories, there are things that are unique to it and things that might be applicable elsewhere. If you get a chance, dive in and give it a try; it’s fun in and of itself, and you might learn something. Or you might not. I mean, pulling apart the progress of a Storium game won’t fix your novel – but fuck it, try it, it probably can’t hurt.


appearances games obituarist

Beware the ides of May

I know I said I would take time off after finishing the foundation draft of Raven’s Blood, and I have. More or less.

But May has had other ideas, and in fact it’s been a bit hectic down on the ranch this last while. Some of that hecticness has been respectable and productive, and some of it has involved the kind of aggressive, determined sloth that accomplishes nothing but leaves you nonetheless exhausted.

…holy shit, that is a really scary-looking aggressive sloth. Calm the fuck down, man. Have a burrito or something.

Anyway, in lieu of a more substantive post – that may come next weekend, once I regrow some updates – here’s a swag of updates, links and disconnected bits. Which is pretty much like the rest of the internet, I guess.

Continuum X is in two weeks! The programme is out now, and you’ll find that I am speaking on a number of panels, as if I had something to say rather than just being some random yahoo off the street. Those are:

  • Remembering Iain Banks
  • It’s All Been Done: Writing in the Age of TV Tropes
  • Modern Roleplaying

Those are all on Monday 9 June, the last day of the con, so come along to hear my too-rapid ramblings after you’ve had your fill of everything and everyone else. On the other days, look for me in the local bars, especially if they’re karaoke bars; I have a feeling some of the GenreCon crowd and I are going to want to belt out ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’ over a couple of tequilas.

As we all know, when I’m not writing I’m slacking off playing games, and I felt I deserved to play something  after April’s efforts. So I borrowed Batman: Arkham Origins from a co-worker, and thanks to some time off caused by mild food poisoning (yay) I was able to play it all the way through over a couple of weeks.

And I kinda liked it! I played Arkham City a few years back, and you may recall that while I enjoyed the gameplay I thought the story and tone was aaaaallll over the shop, and that the constant misogyny just ground all the joy out of playing. Well, Origins avoids the worst of that; it has a clear, consistent direction and it knows where to draw the storytelling line to keep everything hanging together. The core storyline – Batman fights a horde of assassins in the course of one night while early in his career – stays the course, while the side adventures never drift too far away from that in mood. (And it avoids misogyny largely by having no female characters to speak off, but that’s sadly predictable.) There’s even an honest-to-god character arc.

Of course it’s still overly grimdark to the point of being goofy, Batman is a violent thug and everything in Gotham is on fire ALL THE TIME, but that seems to be the established norm for this character now. While the addition of more detective-oriented plot bits is welcome, they all boil down to [push button to have Alfred identify murderer for you], the end-game is anti-climatic, and it runs into the problem all prequels do in that it has to try to foreshadow everything that comes later.

But still. Pretty fun. Definitely worth the nothing I paid for it.

In other gaming, I finished my other ongoing RPG campaign, the extremely intermittent Weird-West game Tribulation. We were a long time getting to the end, but I think it was worth it.

It was a strange ending, though, one that took in time travel and paradoxes, and pushed those to the point of rewriting everything that had gone before. That’s a hard road for a story to follow, and it’s made me think a fair bit about the nature of stories like that, the need for foreshadowing (and how to make that work), and whether you can end a story with ‘this story didn’t happen’ while still making it satisfying for the audience for whom it did.

Hmm. More thoughts on that later, perhaps – especially once I see X-Men: Days of Future Past, which looks to be trying to pull off something similar. Hopefully their special effects budget is bigger than mine. Although will they have as many Dr Who references? Probably not, he said smugly.

My dog continues to be pretty freakin’ cute.

The Emerging Writers Festival starts this week! I’m not involved in it this year, but if I get organised I’ll be heading off to various events and seeing how many friendly faces I recognise. If you’re headed that way, let me know what you’re going to and maybe we can have a play date. Come on, motivate me; don’t let me slack off.

Speaking of writing, the first couple of alpha-reader reviews have come back on Raven’s Blood, and they’re pretty positive. I think. I haven’t really looked at them; I’m trying to keep that book out of my head entirely for a while until I’m ready to rewrite.

In the meantime, I just finished a short story for an anthology that… actually, I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about that yet. But it’s an odd little piece that was fun to write; let’s hope the editor likes it.

And then next week, to kick off June, I begin work on the next book, for which I can finally reveal the title:


The Obituarist II: Dead Men’s Data


Yes, the continuing adventures of Kendall Barker, um, continue. Come back to the poorly-swept streets of Port Virtue for another tale of death, social media and spreadsheet abuse! There’ll be thrills! Spills! Returning characters! New characters! Poor life choices! Swearing! And some bits that I hope take readers by surprise.

The plan is to write this novella throughout June, aiming for a total of around 24 000 words by the start of July ready to hand over to test readers and my editor. (Who I also have to hire again, along with my cover designer.) I found a good rhythm with the first novella, punching out one 1000-odd word chapter each night; if I can get that vibe again I should easily be able to hit the deadline while still taking time off a few nights each week for nerding and bourbon.

And once that’s done, it’ll be time for Raven’s Blood rewrites.

This momentum is probably good.

I may need defibrillation by August.


The game’s afoot (the foot’s a game)

I’ve had enough of talking about books right now.

You know what I want to talk about, with Christmas a ridiculous week-and-a-bit away?

Board games. Yeah.

I am, as we all know, a gaming nerd, primarily of the role-playing variety. But for various reasons it’s been hard to get all my peeps together regularly this year to fight monsters and psychic cowboys, and often we instead turn to various board games to fulfil our need to both be social and to defeat (or enable) evil.

Now personally, I like the heavily themed games with lots of sub-bits, cards, tokens, art and similar things, and happily there are a shitload of those to choose from. So in the leadup to Christmas, here’s a quick run-down of six games I like, what’s interesting about them and why they’re fun. Maybe you could buy one for the nerd in your life. S/he might like that.

S/he might not, ‘cos nerds be haters, but it’s worth a shot.

Lords of Waterdeep

This is a game of fantasy intrigue set in the Forgotten Realms, that hoary old D&D setting that’s full of bullshit names and backstory stuff I can’t be bothered remembering. Fortunately, none of that is necessary for enjoying this game, which is a solid ‘worker placement’ game with a really steady, effective rhythm to it. Over eight structured turns you send agents to recruit faceless adventurers in taverns, then throw their lives away to fulfil quests, gain victory points and work towards your hidden agenda. What I like is that it’s a competitive game but not a confrontational one; you can briefly stymie another player but you can’t attack them, and most of the extra events and twists you can throw in help you while helping everyone else (to a lesser extent). It’s an interesting move away from the directness of most competitive games, and makes sure that everyone stays in the running to the end.

Last Night on Earth

This is a game about surviving a zombie attack on a small American town – or, more accurately, the cliche-laden movie about said attack. It’s an interesting mix of co-op and competitive, with the human players teaming up to escape the machinations of the zombie player(s). Unashamedly cinematic, the game throws in unfair twists to keep the citizens constantly on the run, even while allowing the occasional event in their favour. As well as its excellent production values, I love the pacing of the game; every session has always been a nail-biting race to the finish line, with victory (or gruesome defeat) coming at the very last minute.

Vampire: Prince of the City

This game may lack some of the colourful production values of the others, but it makes up for it with atmosphere and depth. Based on the Vampire: the Requiem RPG, you play elder vamps scheming against each other to become top dog of a city compromised of hexagonal districts. Unlike LoW, this game is highly confrontational; when you’re not attacking other players directly, you’re often working to undermine their plans, steal their resources and make their unlives miserable – except when you’re asking them to help you deflect a band of monster hunters or cover-up a plot gone wrong. I like that twist and turn to it, but what I really love is how well it evokes the tone and feel of the RPG; the two mesh so well that I’m planning to use them together at some point. (Hopefully soon.)

Elder Sign

Sticking with horror, but drifting a little from the strict definition of ‘board’ game, this is a fast-paced, really fun Call of Cthulhu spin-off. It’s the trimmed-down cousin to games like Arkham Horror, but throws away all the sub-boards and endless sprawling fiddly bits for a focused game based on cards and special dice. Players explore a museum, fighting back cultists and spoooookiness until either the world is saved or Azathoth bursts from the grandfather clock to cornhole all of reality. Like Prince, I love the atmosphere of this game, but I also love its speed and general simplicity – there are enough fiddly bits to keep you engaged, but it all boils down to tense rolls of the dice to save the day.


At this point I’m basically abandoning the board entirely, because it’s my list and I’ll do what I like. And what I like is this excellent two-player card game of cyberpunk hackers trying to pillage data from heartless corporations. Play style is different for each player; the Corp sets up hidden servers and protective programs, revealing them to surprise the Runner – who meanwhile is cobbling together programs, skimming resources and trying to stay as mobile as possible. Netrunner started life as a CCG, way back in the 90s, but has been overhauled into a complete, balanced game that still has room for expansion. I like that room for growth, but I also like that it’s just two-player, and the asymmetry of it; it’s really interesting to find a game that switches feel and strategy depending on which side you take.


My last board game is a straight-up RPG – but hear me out, because Fiasco is special. Like a board game, there’s no Dungeon Master, no pre-prepared plot, no need for complex setup and no continuing play; instead it’s something that 4-5 players can pick up and run with minimal effort in 3-4 hours. A game of heists-gone-wrong, lethal love triangles and dysfunctional and destructive relationships, Fiasco uses frameworks called playsets to quickly create characters, situations and problems that then bounce off each other until something breaks. I love it because it’s so self-contained, so perfectly pick-up-and-play – and also because it’s incredibly affordable, with a super-cheap rulebook and dozens of free playsets online.

Anyway, those are six of my faves; let me know what you think of them, or if you’ve got a particular nerd game to throw up for consideration.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to play with my new dog.

Yes. DOG.


games maps

A month of maps – New Jerusalem

Last week I talked about the map from my Exile Empire D&D game, confirming my nerd credentials and likely driving away anyone that saw my name in the GenreCon program and wanted to check out what the hell I do. Sorry, writing people – but I swear that this stuff is relevant. I swear. HONEST.

…and also I’m a giant nerd.

And this week I’m going to talk about another roleplaying game campaign, although this one hasn’t started yet – although that hasn’t stopped me from making an Obsidian Portal page for it, as discussed in my post about wiki writing last month. (Go back and read it if you like. It’s cool. I’ll wait.) Called Tales of New Jerusalem, it’s a World of Darkness game structured into small, self-contained arcs all set in the titular city, a place that’s been kicking around in my head for a while. New Jerusalem – a small, decaying city somewhere in the English-speaking world, and a place where all kinds of supernatural goings-on occur – is a place I want to define as a continuing setting, someplace with its own character and personality – just as I’ve tried to do with Crosswater and Port Virtue – and the campaign map is a big part of that.

This, then, is my map for the New Jerusalem game:


What the hell is that? That’s not a map!

That’s the board for Prince of the City, a Vampire: the Requiem board game. And sure it’s a map – look at all those locations! I’m not using the numbers around the edges, but all those moody, supernatural hexagons in the middle – hells yeah, that’s my city, along with a couple hundred photos of abandoned buildings and urban decay sitting in a subfolder.

Anything can be a map

What is a map anyway? Does it have to be physical or geographical? Does it have to be a two-dimensional image of a place? Does it have to show a territory? If you’re using a map as a writing aide or adjunct, then I don’t think so – it’s a way of navigating a narrative, before/during/after the writing process, and there are all kinds of ways of doing that. A game board is no better or worse than any other map, so long as I use it in ways that are actually effective – I can’t use this to work out a street route, but I can for defining and exploring the tonal connections between places or developing the character of locations.

If you’re trying to make a map for your work, be willing to go beyond the obvious. A wiki can work as a map, as can a directory full of video/audio files (with appropriate file names). You can stitch a map together from loose index cards with scenes and places on them, drawing connections and putting them in an order that makes sense to you. Hell, you can use the I-Ching or the Tarot as a thematic map, randomly or deliberately choosing images and ideas that click together in well-defined ways. I should know; I’ve done that for a couple of projects now, and it’s always a process that I find useful, albeit not one that might make much sense if spelled out for readers.

Maps are what you make them. What you make for yourself.

You don’t have to take the layout literally

Obvious this isn’t a 1-to-1 layout of the city – you can’t have a town where the south-east corner is all places of worship while all the people live in culturally divided blocks on the west side. And nor is the city centre a great grey space called Elysium where vampires hobnob and have tea parties without fear of retribution, although that would be pretty damn baller. Instead, this is more of a conceptual map, or even a tonal one – a way of naming and grouping kinds of places and locations to help with storytelling. It clumps place-types together as a reminder that a city will have these kinds of industrial locations, these kinds of business districts, and that exploring one might allow links to others.

Similarly, this map isn’t saying that the Cathedral District is just one big-arse church the size of a Melbourne suburb; it’s saying that the defining feature of that district is the Cathedral, whether physically (it’s really impressive), culturally (most people there are Catholic) or socially (the district is home to people who work and care about the operations of Christianity). When you use a conceptual shorthand, it’s a way of boiling things down to their essence – but you can always unboil (shut up, it’s a word now) things back to see the details that foam and set into the space. Lots of maps show the macro and let you drill down to the micro; some also encourage you to drill backwards from the small to the large. Which is pretty cool.

But you can if you want to

You know, then again… what if it was a 1-to-1 mapping? What kind of town do you have if the major synagogue is right next to a popular mosque? If the city morgue is just north of the local asylum? If the glamourous salons of the fashion circuit were just a few blocks from the piss-scented lights of the bus station?

Map can be story depictions or story generators, as we’ve discussed, and I for one get a lot of my story ideas from incongruity and the attempt to reconcile what seem to be conflicting concepts. A map like this is great for generating those kinds of ideas, for trying to make sense of the nonsensical and seeing what develops. Why is the financial sector next to the sewer district? Well, maybe stockbroking businesses moved into the area when prices were low and have now gentrified this cruddy, smelly part of town. The old plumbing unions are being pushed out by the almighty dollar, and families of sewer workers see their rents rising and jobs disappearing. Except that the old sewers push in under the financial district – and one guy with nothing to lose has found a map showing an underground route to the city’s biggest bank…

Sometimes there’s a power in taking things at face value – in saying ‘okay, let’s make it make sense’ and seeing what you can come up with. Just like a diphthong is a new sound caused by moving from one vowel sound to another (yeah, I’ve got a phonetics project on the go at my day job, you can tell), so a connection between two story elements can be its own unique story element – and it can be easier to make that connection when things are touching, even if only conceptually.

Connections and isolations

Tales of New Jerusalem is an anthology game – rather than one big long storyline, like a novel, it’s a collection of short 3-4 session games with different characters but set in the same place and continuity. One storyline might take place just at the university, or in Chinatown – or might cover two or three locations, leaving the rest of the city for another time. Because of this, it’s not enough to just give the city its own character – each district and sublocation needs its own personality too, enough to be more than just a backdrop.

The tools for developing place-character in gaming aren’t the same as those in prose writing, but there’s overlap, and both types of creation can learn from the other. One of the best resources for developing modern urban locations in horror gaming is Damnation City, a Vampire: the Requiem book that is probably the single best product put out for the line. It’s all about realising the tone and feel of a city, from the macro to the microscale, from the past to the present, and – most important of all – communicating that tone to players as their characters engage with the setting and create story. It’s a hell of a read, it’s one of my creative bibles for the New Jerusalem campaign, and if you’re writing horror prose then you could do a lot worse than to think about some of the tools within in.

This is the second-last instalment of September’s month of maps, which is extending into October because I have many things to talk about and a poor grasp of calendarisation.  Come back next weekend for the last of it, where I look at a disgracefully moribund project and remind everyone that I’m bad at meeting my own commitments. It’ll be fun! We’ll have hot dogs and talk about failure!

Also this week, you can find my Melbourne Fringe Festival reviews at Crikey, as I’ve been seeing comedy shows for their Laugh Track blog.

And in two weeks time, I head north for GenreCon! I’m as excited as hell! I’m almost certainly going to blog about it!

games maps

A month of maps – Exile Empire

Sorry for being a day late, folks – I spent yesterday playing D&D with my crew.

And hey, speaking of that, let’s make an incredible obvious segue into tonight’s post! Because rather than rough up another map for a story I’m writing / was writing / should be writing, I’d like to talk about the map I used for my D&D game – an urban Eberron campaign called Exile Empire. It’s been pottering along erratically for more than two years, and the city map I use has been the single biggest influence on the shape of the game. And I think the way I’ve used that map can inform not just gaming but storytelling in all forms.

So put aside your novels, slip on your d20-emblazoned boxer shorts and come check out this here map of Stormreach:


A few thoughts:

Oh, so pretty

Now that’s a proper map. It has streets and borders and funny-shaped buildings and everything. Who could help but get inspired by something like this, or this map of Freeport (partially shaped by yours truly) or any number of the gorgeous maps of Middle-Earth out there in the wilds?

There’s certainly value in an attractive map to the reader, but what value is there for the writer? How is this better than my godawful Word scribblings? Well, for one thing it’s actually interesting to look at, and anything that keeps you engaged in your work and your world is a good thing. Another strength is that it’s got genuine detail – you can see a lot more about the flow of movement and the change in local geography from this image, and that makes it easier to reflect in prose. And third, a good map does some of the work of evoking the setting for you. You’d have to read City of Stormreach to realise most of those buildings are overturned boats or hollowed-out giant stone heads, but this map still helps you communicate colour and shape, helps get across the feel of life in a seaside town that occasionally gets menaced by flying jellyfish from a dimension of madness.

Yes, that was a major campaign plotline. It was great.

Come selector 

The joy of a map with all the bits filled in – whether you did all the world building or you bought the city off the shelf – is seeing all the different places and locations spelled out for you, waiting to be used. You have the opportunity to select a story, rather than create one – or, if that’s too strong a statement, to create one using the building blocks that have already been assembled. Your world is rich in stories and potential stories; you can tease out and develop any one that you wish, leaving the rest for another time.

Is that a good way to write stories, though? Opinions will vary. I find it a difficult concept to consider – I want to write the story that explores my world and ideas, rather than just one of a variety of stories. Other writers will disagree, and want to benefit from the richness of a world that can bear multiple narratives. It’s certainly a powerful approach for writing short stories, especially if you’re sharing the sandbox with other writers – as in the old Thieves’ World series, which I also have some experience with. And it’s great for gaming, of course – which often is a lot like writing in a shared world anthology, with some co-writers at the table and others at the other end of whatever sourcebook you’re using.

The tyranny of the interesting bits

The thing about having all those engaging story elements pre-defined for you is that it can blind you to the power (or occasionally the necessity) of creating new elements in the moment. This is something I stumble into a lot in gaming – with so many toys to play with, why go to the trouble of making my own? Well, because those toys might have more direct relevance to the players, or their characters, or the themes I want to explore. And so it was with Stormreach. We had a lot of fun running around the Harbour District getting into fights, or setting fires to various taverns (okay, being in various taverns when they were set on fire), but it was when we went off the map to break a siege in the jungles that the campaign took a turn and several characters went through meaningful changes.

If you’ve put the work into creating a map, or a setting, or a court full of intrigues all before you start writing, that’s great – but don’t feel limited by the things you’ve already done. There’s always room to add a new location, introduce a new character, complicate or eliminate or double down on an existing relationship – and the stuff you make in the moment is at least as interesting to your readers/players as the stuff that was there all along. Maybe even more so.

Movement is story

When the Order of the Emerald Claw attacked Master Aedan in the Temple District, his student Slaine was in Cross, and it wasn’t until she’d come through the Marketplace that she came home to find him bleeding out. When the Storm Hammers opened a dimensional portal in the undercity, the heroes had to track down an entrance in the old Rubble Warren in Greystone. And when a giant fell taint bled lumps of diseased telepathy into the river, the adventurers had to race through a city beset by sickness and madness to hire a skiff, sail upriver and fight the horrible squishy thing.

A defined map has both locations and information about where those locations are in relationship to each other. The best stories are never set entirely within one place – they always involve movement from A to B, and that movement goes through C. The joy of a defined map is the chance to explore the transition between locations as well as the locations themselves – because that movement lets you see the world around the characters and locations, the effects events have on those interstitial spaces, and how they’re changed by the actions of the characters. It’s in that travel from one place to another that story happens and stakes raise for when you reach your destination.

Spin it round

What’s the northernmost location shown on this map? The district of Whitewash at the top? Nope – it’s the Foundry, location number 1 off to the right. That’s because the compass rose down in the bottom corner has north off to the right, while up the page is west.

For whatever cultural or neurological reasons, we always assume the top bit of the map is north, and it’s a disorienting wrench to re-align north to the left or right, and nearly impossible to spin it 180 to the bottom. If you want to disorient your readers, turn your map 90 degrees before it hits the page so that they’re always uncertain about how to translate the words ‘and then they walked six blocks north’ into something visual. However, if you prefer not to give your readers conceptual vertigo, skip the silly buggers and just make north the bit that goes up. It’s easier.

Hope y’all found that excursion into a different kind of map (and purpose for a map) interesting.

‘cos we’re doing it again in a few days, except completely differently.

Comments welcome, as always.

games story worldbuilding writing

Wiki wiki woo

So one of the things I did on my blogging holiday was write wiki entries.




Specifically, I was writing wiki entries for some of my roleplaying campaigns, and that little sound you can hear is all of my internet credibility squeaking out of my blog as if I was a balloon animal with a slow leak. But no, come back! This is writing-relevant! I doubleplus promise cross my heart!

So anyway, I have an account on Obsidian Portal, a useful gaming site that lets GMs create pages for their campaigns with images, NPC write-ups, session summaries and wikis. I’ve been running a single set of pages there for my D&D campaign since before it started, lo these many years ago, but recently I upped to a paid account so that I could set up a wiki for my Weird West Smallville game and for two campaigns I’ve planning to run once those finish.

Now, indulge me here, folks – go have a look at the pages and wikis for Exile Empire and Tribulation, the two campaigns that I’ve been running for a while. Potter around for a bit, click some links, read some adventure logs and – most importantly – take a brief pass through the wikis. Go on, I’ll wait.

Are we back? Good. Are we in awe about what an amazingly inventive GM and storycrafter I am in my games about fantasy adventurers and psychic cowboys?

…fine, whatever.

Now, pop quiz – what’s the big difference between the two campaign wikis? Anyone? That’s right, Exile Empire‘s is much larger and more detailed than Tribulation‘s – but most of that extra content hasn’t been at all relevant to the story (i.e. the game) that’s based on all that setting information. There’s a tonne of data about districts, factions and characters that have never appeared in the game; meanwhile,  Tribulation‘s wiki has much less material, but all of it is directly relevant to the game.

And why? Because I wrote it after the game had actually started and we’d had all the core plot elements come out in play. Rather than trying to detail all the things that could be relevant, I just had to put in the things that definitely were relevant.

A wiki like Exile Empire‘s is a worldbuilding tool, specifically one aimed at the players of the game; it’s a way of putting everything that could be relevant to creating characters and understanding the world out for their perusal, so that they can explore it, internalise it and come up with ideas of how to use it. It’s a great tool for coming up with the ideas for stories and allowing you to explore those ideas and their connections in a little more depth before picking out those you’ll actually use. You can also see this in the detailed wiki I created for Annihilation, the Marvel Heroic RPG campaign I plan to run when Exile Empire is finished. (Go on, click the link, you know you want to.) Again, lots of information, lots of connections between information – but because the game hasn’t started yet, none of it links up to any story. It’s all potential, all background data for the players to use; all stage, no direction.

The benefit of a wiki like this comes from reading it, whether that’s for players to get character ideas or for me to think ‘okay, let’s come up with a story involving House Tharashk and the Storm Hammers in the Harbour District’ and have that idea drive play for like a year.

The Tribulation wiki, on the other hand, is more of a story development tool. It’s free of any extraneous material and it’s not very handy for developing the world; it’s probably not very interesting reading, even as far as RPG campaign wikis go, because it’s so focused on the essentials. But writing it helped me get a better understanding of how the plot elements I’d already introduced fit together, and in doing so I came up with more ideas of how to progress with those ideas towards the game’s conclusion. So while this wiki maybe isn’t as useful to my players, it’s been very useful to me. I have another game on there, Tales of New Jerusalem, which also has a sketchy wiki, and I’m doing that deliberately so that I don’t overplan or include too much extraneous worldbuilding in the game. Instead I want to focus on short story arcs and connections between multiple characters, and my experience with Tribulation suggests to me that I’ll handle this better if I come back to the wiki after a few plots have already been laid down and explored in play.

The benefit from a wiki like these comes from writing it, from actually sitting down and clearly outlining story elements and their connections; it lets me think ‘there definitely should be connections between the Apache Super-Chief, Delian Sisula and Emmett’ and then develop those connections in the next story arc.

So game nerding aside, what’s the upshot of all this for writing? Two things:

  1. Using a wiki to outline all the possibilities for your story can help you determine which ones you want to explore before you write.
  2. Using a wiki to clarify the connections between plot elements can help you work out where you’re going as you write.

In the early stages of working out the parameters of a story, the kind of exhaustive worldbuilding of a wiki like those for Exile Empire or Annihilation can be really useful – it helps you visualise all the things your story could have in it, then pick out the elements that it actually will have in it, leaving the rest to fade into the background of your mind until they’re needed (if ever). It’s especially valuable for complex worlds that have lots of information in them that readers need to know about; you can see the elements and how to work them into the story.

Writing a wiki in the middle of the story, though, helps you work out what you’ve missed so far and where to take things from here. A lean, sparse wiki like those of Tribulation or New Jerusalem can help visualise the shape of the story so far. Actively spelling out connections between story elements can help you make sense of where you’ve been and where you’re going; it can also show you if those connections need to be explored more in the story, whether going forward or by editing them back into what’s already been written.

Both approaches have plusses and minuses, and both are just one possible example of using an outlining and interconnectivity tool; wikis are one option but they’re not the only ones. Mind maps, flowcharts, stacks of index cards… there are lots of ways to visualise and connect your story elements. You don’t need to use such things – as always, there’s no One True Way to write effectively – but spilling everything out in front of you and connecting the dots can be a big help in marshalling your ideas, whether they’re ideas about what to do in the first place or about where to go from here.

Give it a try; if nothing else, you might find it fun. Certainly if you’re the kind of person who likes sitting alone in a darkened office, cross-referencing notes on the X-Men’s activities in the Kree Empire and seeing how that affects their trip to the Forgotten Realms.


games writing

What writers can learn from filthy roleplayers

It’s been thirty years – holy crap, thirty years – since I found a copy of Basic D&D in the local gift shop. I’d seen ads for it in the back of X-Men comics and wanted to find out what it was, so I bought it with my birthday money and spent the next week trying to figure it out.

Now, after a hundred campaigns, a thousand sessions and about a million words in various sourcebooks, I still don’t know whether I’ve truly figured roleplaying games out. But I’ve enjoyed trying, and that’s the main thing.

Thirty years is also about how long I’ve been writing fiction, all the way back to my first SF story written at age 12 – and, setting the stage for my entire career, handed into my teacher long after it was due. So for me those two pursuits have run in parallel almost my whole life. My writing informs my gaming, mostly in how I approach plotting and in the language I use when GMing; listen to me run a game and you hear the same turns of phrase that pepper my fiction. But gaming has also informed my writing, because there’s a lot that writers can learn from playing and running games.

What you can’t learn from gaming, just to be clear, is how to write well – decades of gaming fiction have proven that. While there are rare writers who bring style and craft to gaming fiction, like Greg Stolze or Don Bassingthwaite, the vast majority of it is workmanlike at best and utterly dreadful at worst. Hell, Gary Gygax invented the whole damn hobby, but look at his Gord the Rogue books – or better yet, don’t, because they’re terrible. Really fucking terrible. Like a whole new level of terrible 1d6 layers below the regular terrible of other game novels and patrolled by wandering 3d8 awfuls all armed with +3 glaive-guisarmes of suck.

Well. Maybe not that much. But lord, they’re not good.

But what you can learn from roleplaying games – especially the new breed of drama-focused indie games (but also from plain ol’ D&D and its kin) – is how to tell a coherent, engaging story, along with a few tools that can carry across to telling stories in prose.  And tonight, prompted by a suggestion by my mate Dan a while ago, I want to look at some of those things.

Distinctive characters…

One of the great challenges of gaming is reconciling the creative and aesthetic visions of everyone involved, and nowhere is that more apparent than when the players create their characters. But that process also ensures that each of the player characters comes from a different place and sensibility, making them distinct and unique, portrayed with different voices and styles – and equipped with distinct, different abilities. Run a session of a game, any game at all, and you’ll see those disparate ideas come together and find an equilibrium, one where each character is immediately identifiable and has a different set of tools for shaping play. This doesn’t mean you should outsource the creation of your novel’s characters to other people, of course; instead, focus on creating characters that aren’t all cut from the same mold, that have different priorities and purposes in their conception, their interactions with the story and what they can achieve.

…with meaningful abilities

The other good thing about character creation in RPGs is that it delineates what a character can actually do. In some games this is very rigidly and ‘realistically’ defined, outlining exactly how much a character can lift/learn/stab; in others it’s more narrative and handwavey, broadly outlining an archetype or describing the strength of their relationships. No matter the approach, though, all games find a way to define the things that are important in play and then shape the characters so that they interact with those things. This means that players produce characters that can attempt to solve conflicts in different ways and that those ways can all be useful and meaningful in some way. That’s an excellent set of priorities for fiction writing – make sure that the different things characters do all have some impact on the story, even if not in every scene, and that they align with the themes and motifs that you’re trying to define as important in the narrative.


Oh god, there is nothing so important and vital I have learned from gaming as pacing, and I have learned it the hardest way possible – by boring the shit out of my players. Whether it’s four-hour combat scenes where hit points are slowly ground away, shopping scenes where some players weigh up the merits of equipment while others drink all the beer in the house, conflicts that are rushed through so people can catch the last train home or just playing out situations that no-one gives a shit about, I’ve made every pacing mistake there is to make. And I’m glad, because I have passed through the fire and burned away my flaws (and possibly my eyebrows). There is a rhythm and flow to pacing, to compressing the dull-but-necessary bits and expanding out the thrilling bits while making sure they stay thrilling, and nothing teaches this to you like your small audience showing its displeasure or engagement by paying attention or falling asleep. And all of that translates directly to prose writing.

Scene framing

This is a vital pacing tool, but it’s also important enough to the narrative to warrant a special mention. ‘Scene framing’ is the simple act of setting a scene for play – deciding on the environment, situation and stakes and then determining the characters’ involvement. Depending on the game, it can be a naturalistic outcome of events – ‘you open the door and there are six demons playing poker’ – or a cut to a new situation ‘it’s two weeks after your wife left you and you come home to find the cat on fire’. Good, assertive scene framing is important because it a) sets up a scene for immediate conflict, b) trims away all the narrative fat from before the scene to focus on the core, which is good for pacing, and c) gives every character in the scene a hook or purpose for being there, which can come from the player or from the GM. Using these principles to set scenes makes for engaging play – and for engaging reading when you carry the same approach over to fiction.

Engaging conflicts

I know I keep saying this, but drama is all about conflict, and RPGs are great at conflict. Admittedly, most of them focus on one kind of conflict, which is the punching/shooting/swording etc kind. RPGs started life as a spin-off from wargames, and that legacy is why many games have a 60-page chapter of combat rules and four paragraphs on how to talk to people to get what you want. But all kinds of conflicts come up in games, and many games have systems or frameworks for exploring them in an enjoyable way. More importantly, RPGs are about pushing conflicts to find some kind of concrete outcome, from killing the troll to convincing the sheriff of your innocence, and it’s wanting to find what that outcome will be that keeps players engaged rather than seeing the whole thing as a speedbump – and the same goes for fiction readers. Some indie games go so far as to set explicit stakes before gaming through a conflict, which is something worth considering for your fiction – but then again, the naturalistic approach of ‘person left standing at the end decides what happens next’ can also make for strong writing. What really matters is that the conflict is meaningful to the characters and the outcome is in doubt; that’s what keeps people reading.

Exploring consequences

And what are the outcomes of the conflict? How do they shape the story that follows? Actions have consequences, and pretty much every RPG is based around following the track of those consequences. A linear dungeon crawl still works its way through a chain of consequences, be it ‘we beat the dragon, took its treasure and spent it on booze and a helm of alignment change‘ or ‘we all got killed by goblins and now the village is on fire’. A twisty, intricate urban horror fantasy might juggle a dozen subplots, but the overall progression of the game will still hinge on how the outcome of one plot has a knock-on effect on another and then feeds into a third, a fourth, a tenth. A dull conflict is one whose outcomes don’t go anyway, like a ‘trash mob’ fight in an MMO; a good conflict is one where the consequences shape play a dozen sessions later, even if only in a minor way. And it pretty much goes without saying that this same principle applies to fiction; that the seeds sown by the very first situation are reaped (along with many others) at the end of your book.

Huh. Usually I manage to include more (allegedly) humourous asides in these posts. Guess I have my serious pants on tonight.

There are other tools that can come across from gaming – world-building is a big part of game design, and a lot of that translates well to doing the same in prose – but these are the big ones for me. More pertinently, these are ones that come out in actual play, rather than the planning stages, and ones that get honed and refined the more actual game playing or GMing you do.

And because of that, these are tools and skills that you learn by doing – the best, the only way to pick up the strengths of gaming and bring them to prose writing is to get in there and play or run a game (and preferably a lot more than one). If you’ve not tried roleplaying but you’d like to give it a try and see what you learn, there are a number of fantastic games out there that can demonstrate all the things I’ve been talking about – check out Dungeon World, Fiasco, Smallville (yes, really), the various World of Darkness games, Don’t Rest Your Head, Fate Core or Fate Accelerated, Mutant City Blues or straight-up Dungeons & Dragons (4th edition is my favourite). All of these are great games that showcase some or all of the concepts I’ve been talking about.

Hell, if you live in Melbourne and you want to give ’em a try, leave a comment. I can always do with more players.

(And if you’re interested in reading more about my gaming adventures and ideas, check out my gaming Tumblr Save vs Facemelt and the ongoing story of my D&D campaign Exile Empire over at Obsidian Portal.)

character games genre story worldbuilding writing

Guild Wars 2 – the storytelling dos and don’ts (part 2)

Last week I started talking about Guild Wars 2, not because it’s a fun game (it is) but because it’s an interesting object lesson in the use of storytelling techniques. I wrote about 1300 words about that, and I can only assume that I stunned all of you into silence with my brilliance ‘cos no-one offered even a single comment on it. Should I ask someone to rewrite my essay?

Well, prepared to be driven permanently mute as I continue to write even more on the topic of story, character and high-level armour drops!

(Also, this was meant to be finished and posted on Sunday night, but the Comedy Festival is chewing up my time and spitting out minutes and limbs.)

(And they’re not even my limbs. Not sure where they come from. Damned creepy, really.)

Choices matter

Throughout your personal story in GW2 you get called on to choose between two or three courses of action, which dictate what the next chunk of narrative will be. That’s excellent game design because it actively engages the player, making them feel that they’re an active participant in the story – even though some choices are weighted pretty heavily towards one more interesting option. (“Well, you could disguise yourself as a minotaur or do LAH LAH LAH NOT LISTENING HAND ME THE HORNS AND SUPERGLUE.”) In fiction you get that engagement by presenting the main character – the reader’s window into the story – with choices to make. Make your main character an active participant in their own story and the reader will follow suit.

…even when they don’t

On the other hand, choices need to be meaningful, and the ones in GW2 aren’t. Sure, they determine which mission you tackle next, but the end point of that mission lines you up to the pre-determined outcome and next stage the same as the alternative would. The game has a path, and your choices just determine which bits of scenery you set fire to along the way. In a story, choices need to be genuine decision points that shape outcomes and have permanent consequences, or else there’s no point writing about them. And as part of that, some of the most interesting decisions are the bad ones, the ones that don’t work out and push the story further into conflict. Go crazy with those.

Voice defines character

A key element of GW2 is that your character speaks, generally in conversational cut scenes – and the most important part of that is that your character develops a distinct voice. No, not voice acting, but a style and tone all their own, from the patient Sylvari to the belligerent Charr to the egotistical Norn. Each character expresses personality through their words as well as their deeds, and that’s vital for any kind of fiction as well. It’s also something you notice when it falls away, as it does in GW2 as multiple plot directions collapse into one, taking with them your character’s distinct voice – so don’t do that. Maintain character voice, even when the plot takes the character in a new direction.

At this point, I feel I should show you my character. His name is Cadmus and he is a Sylvari Guardian and he is level 80 and he fights with a sword and torch and he made all his own armour and he is very awesome and okay I’ll shut up now PS he is boss.


Fuck lore

I blame Bioware for the trend of emphasising the rich, detailed backstory of their game worlds by littering their games with infodumps and books/scrolls/datapads that you find and reach and squint at instead of actually playing the game. GW2 has plenty of backstory, but rarely stops to tell you about it – it shows you, usually by sending you on missions where history pops up, says hello and stabs you in the face. Short on exposition and long on action/character, GW2’s history leeches into you by osmosis rather than study, and that is a fine lesson to bring to your fiction. Stay focused in the here and now, let your characters discover history organically, and throw out just enough to provide context before moving on.

Genre is a big tent

If you’re looking for purist, traditional fantasy, GW2 is not for you. This is a world featuring giant Vikings, inquisitive plant-people, horned cat-folk undergoing an industrial revolution and a race of freckled gnomish mad scientists with robots and lasers. Add to that pistols, aqualungs, airships, battle armour, dozens of sentient races (most of them bad), anachronisms aplenty and wide swathes of horror and you get a take on fantasy that is anything but traditional. And that’s a good thing. Genre is vast, it contains multitudes, and purity is past its use-by date. Never feel hemmed in by what a genre is ‘supposed’ to contain – put in the things you want to include and the genre will swell to fit.

A consistent tone? What’s that?

Mind you, the problem with a big tent is that you might fill it with boxes, open them all at once and find that they don’t play well together. GW2 tries to present a series, often tragic tone within its main storyline, especially in the third act, but then destabilises that by getting you to enter an 8-bit computer game or fight the terrible Marxist-Leninist mole people in various pun-based locations. It’s hard to have feels when giggles are just a few minutes behind, and hard to maintain a tone of desperate urgency when you can just wander off and ignore the plot for a week while you gather armour bits. Any idea can be serious or silly, calm or critical depending on how you treat it, so long as you pick a tone early on and stick with it. If you’re going to be a purist anywhere in your own work, it should be tone – find your level ASAP and stay there to the end.

Pictures are worth a thousand etcetera

The visual world of GW2 is both rich and very carefully crafted, so that whenever you look around you know where you are. Every location has its own feel, from the sedate human kingdoms to the once-drowned-now-risen wastelands of Orr. Architecture is similarly distinct – you instantly know the cubic, gravity-defying ziggurats of the Asura from the dark satanic mills of the Charr and the re-purposed shipwreck-buildings of Lion’s Arch. Making everything distinct means that everything has instantly-identifiable flavour, embedding players in the world. Writers don’t get to play with visuals (well, most of us don’t), but we have other tools – word choices, prose rhythm, dialect, adjectives and more. Just as you give every character a voice, try to give every location and scene its own voice too; it makes the stories within them all the richer.

Exploration isn’t necessarily story

That said, if all you’re doing is looking at the scenery or exploring the intricacies of how the Shamu-Shamu people make purple whaleskin booties, your story isn’t going anywhere. GW2 encourages exploration with various tools, including the thrill of discovery and the lure of XP and treasure drops, but the story gets put on hold while you check out the landscape. Do you want to put your story on hold while people are actually, you know, reading your story? I thought not. As with lore, position the rich tapestry of your world front and centre by making characters run right through it, showing its colours and complexity for a second and then getting on with things. Story is movement. Always keep moving.

I could probably come up with half-a-dozen more object lessons, but it’s late and this essay is already long enough.

Let’s close by saying this. There was a time where prose was the Only Important Way of telling stories. That time is the distant past. These days there are lots of ways of getting a story into the reader’s head and heart, from games to graphic novels to epic poetry to multi-part interactive fiction experiments on Twitter. I’ve been talking about Guild Wars 2, but I could have drawn similar lessons from pretty much game, any movie, any (mostly) well-crafted piece of storytelling.

Everything you take in can teach you how to tell stories, whether by example or as a don’t-do-this object lesson. Keep your eyes peeled and your mind open, and you can learn from any of them. All of them. And make your stories better in the process.

Also, I’m patrickoduffy.3067 on Jade Quarry server, looking for groups to tackle the lower-level dungeons and maybe a guild to join. Send me a tell. I’ve got your back.