Categories
games story worldbuilding

So you wanna do a D&D (part 4)

And we’re back(!), with more talk for newcomers about what’s involved in crafting ‘D&D stories’ (i.e. playing D&D and games like it), and more evidence that I’m really shit at maintaining a regular schedule.

Before we get started, let’s revisit my definition of D&D stories:

action-adventure fantasy stories about larger-than-life characters solving problems by going to dangerous locations and defeating antagonists

The last few posts have drilled down into the first half of that description, looking at how different games alter those parameters. Now it’s time to look at the second half, and it’s here that we leave different game rules behind to investigate something else – game settings.

Why setting matters

Tedious people in creative writing classes often say ‘plot is character’ in self-satisfied voices, and if I was one of them I might respond with ‘setting is story’ before steepling my fingers and peering over my glasses.

let’s all be grateful that I’m not like that

Fantasy worlds (which I’m just gonna call ‘settings’ from now on) provide the vital context needed to both create and interpret fantasy stories. A fantasy story needs to make sense – logical sense, narrative sense, emotional sense, all the senses – within the rules of its setting, and the more defined and specific that setting, the less likely it is that that story would make sense within a different setting. The Lord of the Rings doesn’t work as a World of Warcraft story. A Wizard of Earthsea doesn’t work as a Witcher story. And the first Dungeons & Dragons movie doesn’t work as… well, much of anything.

this movie’s bad y’all but Jeremy Irons is glorious

That said, game settings tend to be a little more flexible than film/novel settings, as the folks playing can choose to make room for new concepts. Within a game, setting is most important as a theatre for establishing and communicating tone, which is emerging through these posts as a pivotal aspect of game stories.

Setting impacts tone in three major ways:

  • Environment: What physical locations and problems does the setting present to the characters? Do characters explore castles and catacombs, or are they delving into fairie grottoes and elemental demiplanes? Is the world verdant and green, or blackened by centuries of magical warfare?
  • Opposition: What antagonists do characters confront? Are they fighting humans (or human-ish people) and wild animals, with the moral quandaries that could imply? Are there dragons and demons and tentacle monsters, the dangers of a magical world? Is it time to smash some robots and zombies without feeling any guilt?
  • Uhh… I guess Fantasticalness?: How strange, magical and fantastic is the world in general? Does it closely resemble our own history, except with elves and magic, or does it drastically diverge into new territory? Are there gods, prophecies, mecha, talking stones, whimsy, 18 different kinds of elf etc., and how do folks feel about this?

By establishing these points, and communicating a tone that everyone (hopefully) accepts and understands, your game’s setting becomes its shared imaginative space, the place within which story happens.

Given that – what setting should you use?

The one in the book

The simplest option, and the one that’s genuinely the best option for the vast majority of games, is to use the setting that comes packaged with the game you’re playing.

if you like playing second fiddle to Ed Greenwood’s self-insert horny wizard then boy do I have a setting for you

If your preferred D&D is actual D&D, the setting roughly sketched in the 5E books is The Forgotten Realms, a big kitchen sink full of all the fantasy stuff you could want, a bunch more stuff you don’t want and can ignore, and characters with names full of apostrophes and excess Z’s. There’s also a horny wizard who’s very important.

If you’re playing a different game, such as one of the many I suggested earlier, most have a chapter or two about their own setting, as well as a bunch of implied detail throughout the book – enough to get everyone in the right imaginative space. However, others have very small setting bits (e.g. Journey Away and Tiny Dungeon), or just frameworks for building your own setting (e.g. Quest and Beyond the Wall) – if you’re playing one of these games, you may need to put in more work.

The advantage of using the offered setting is that it’s easy, and yes, easy is a good thing. Don’t ever feel bad for taking the easy option, especially since what will really shape the game/story is the energy players bring to the setting, not vice versa.

Established settings also give you the change to go deep into established lore – usually by buying more books – and that might be a thing you enjoy. However, this can also be a downside; a big setting can make GMs and players feel like they have to master a world of knowledge and use all of it, which is a) wrong and b) intimidating (even though wrong). Don’t let the setting call the shots!

One from a different book

What if you like the game system/conceits but not the setting, because you find it too big/dull/commercial/full of horny wizards? Junk it and use a different one! The world is waist-deep in fantasy RPG settings just waiting for someone to take them out for a spin. Start here if you like – more than 5000 setting books (in PDF) for various games and systems. Most of these don’t have the lore-filled, supplement-laded settings of major game lines, so they lack that intimidation factor.

If you’re playing 5E D&D then you have an immediate advantage – a great many of these settings are written (or rewritten) with that system in mind, so you don’t need to do any rules work in order to use them in your game. Easy! Which we already established is good! The downside is the homogeneity that comes with fitting everything to the same framework; a lot of these settings feel pretty much the same, with the same tropes and conceits. Of course, that’s more a problem for the future, once you’re experienced and jaded, rather than right now.

this recommendation is still less self-indulgent than Ed Greenwood’s horny wizard

If you’re playing a different system, you still have all the same options but it’s going to be much harder to find a setting book that uses that same system. If you find a setting for a different system, or that doesn’t use a system at all (if you like Lovecraft and pirates and fantasy, I can think of one systemless setting you might really dig, just saying), you’ll need to do a lot of work to convert it to your chosen rules. Although do some Googling before you start – others may have done the work and put their notes online. Gamers like to share.

A third option here, by the way, is to eschew pre-written game settings in favour of established media settings – playing in the world of The Dark Crystal, or She-Ra, or look those are the only two fantasy TV shows I know about, I’m bad at pop culture. Grab the setting bible or Wikipedia profile of your favourite property, give everything game stats (and again, Google first in case someone else did the work already) and off you go! It won’t be an original game world, but originality is drastically overrated in roleplaying, and at least you know you (and hopefully your players) are already invested in this setting.

Create your own world!

But if you don’t want to play in someone else’s world, then go ahead and create your own! This is fun – for some people! It’s not fun for others, and it’s okay to admit it if that’s you! There’s often an attitude of ‘you have to make your own games/settings/adventures to be a real gamer’ in some old and shitty corners of this hobby, and it can get in the fucking bin. Anyone who likes games is a gamer, full stop.

I meant to type Elf King but decided I liked the Elk King better

That said, if you do like world-building, then crack open your favourite set of rules and welcome to the most fun you’ll ever have on your own. You can build the fantasy world of your dreams and then make it concrete (in a way) by translating those dreams into game rules – by writing them down in an objective language that another person (with the same rule set) can understand without ambiguity or confusion. The High Elk King has +12 in Diplomacy, you write, and the reader nods with understanding, knowing exactly what that means, and is also impressed that your world has High Elks.

Building your own setting doesn’t have to mean doing a huge amount of work, or that you don’t have support. There are a lot of RPG world-building tools and resources out there, including books, blogs, videos and communities; there are also many sites, books and files with random tables for creating details, which can prompt your own ideas or help you flesh out the creative space. There’s no minimum – or maximum – amount of detail you need to create for your own game world. The right level is the amount that you find enjoyable to create.

That said, don’t make deep knowledge of your world a requirement for enjoyable play, because your players will never want to go as deep into your creation as you do. Let exploring lore be an optional treat for those who enjoy it, rather than a barrier for entry that prevents players from collaborating on story creation.

…or don’t!

…look, I shouldn’t do this, but I’m going to share a secret with you.

**leans in close**

Setting doesn’t matter.

I mean, it can – if you want it to. But if you don’t care too much about it, and your players don’t care too much about it, and you all just want to get into this whole D&D-or-whatever thing right now, then setting is mostly just background colour and a bunch of irrelevant details.

Instead, you can create a shared imaginative space in the moment – one that’s directly relevant to the game you play.

Here’s what you do before/during your first session:

  1. Come up with a village/town, 2-3 locations and 2-3 characters in it, then name them in ways that seem evocative and interesting to you.
  2. Come up with an ongoing problem and link it to a location or character. Do the same with a smaller, more local problem.
  3. Whenever your players ask a question like ‘how many moons are there?’, ‘where do dwarves come from?’ or ‘is there a socialist worker’s union in town?’, ask them to answer that question for you.
  4. If your players want you to answer the question, fine. Connect it to one of your established elements, then leave some fuzziness or ambiguity so that the players want to learn more.
  5. Jot these details down as you go so that you don’t accidentally contradict yourself. (Deliberately contradicting yourself is fine.)
  6. Now just keep doing this, session to session.

BOOM DONE THAT’S IT YOU HAVE A SETTING NOW

Is this a shallow setting? I’d argue that it’s as deep as it needs to be, and there’s always the opportunity to focus and go deeper. More importantly, this is a setting that’s based in what you and your players found interesting during play, and that leverages everyone’s ideas, which means the buy-in from players will be stronger because they find those ideas more meaningful than something they skimmed in a book.

I mean, this is just lovely

(Another quick tip – download the free World Profile worksheet for the Quest RPG. It’s a wonderfully short and simple document that prompts just the right amount of setting detail, and it works for any game.)

This approach doesn’t work for everyone, obviously. Some GMs (that’s you, you’re a Game Master now, fuck yeah) need to pin down more detail before they can feel confident communicating a setting. And some players don’t want to help shape the world, because their enjoyment comes from the feeling that they’re exploring something outside themselves. That’s fine and fair – we all like different things. But if your group enjoys the shared part of ‘shared creative space’, this quick-and-dirty approach can yield amazing and fun results.

…good lord, that’s a lot of words. I should stop now.

Come back in two weeks (ish) when we start digging into how to write a D&D story with all these tools – in which the first piece of wisdom is that you shouldn’t try to write a D&D story.

I’ll explain later. Promise.

Categories
character games story

So you wanna do a D&D (part 3)

And the saga continues!

(I know I said I’d maintain this series of posts on a fortnightly basis, but if you think about it, 16 days is the same as 15+1 days which is the same as 14 days, and also the world’s on fire and time isn’t real.)

We’re back talking about D&D stories, and how you can start creating D&D stories if you want to get into the NEW HAWTNESS of pretending to be an elf warlock over Discord, and how different D&D-like games will tweak the settings of a ‘D&D story’ while still delivering an experience that’s about the same as D&D, oh no I said D&D too many times, D&D has lost all meaning, what’s a D&D, I D&D you in the face, D&D is in yr base killing yr doods.

D&D set us up the bomb

*HARD RESET* okay we’re good now

The first post in this series outlined some elements of the typical D&D story; the second added tone to that mix and looked at some alternative games that are cheaper or that adjust some of those setting knobs.

Speaking of knobs…

Characters, created

Characters are at the heart of nearly every story and roleplaying game. Not all of them, mind you – Jorge Luis Borges wrote incredible stories with no characters in them, and there are some fascinating games about crafting histories and drawing maps – but fun, engaging characters are what we want 99.9% of the time.

Modern D&D characters are larger-than-life heroes; even if individual games initially position them as neophytes or bumbling naifs, they rapidly become tough and competent, ready to take on dragons, demons, liches and other Big Bads.

However, a lot of people seem to want games that are ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic’ (whatever those terms mean), which means the primary adjustment many fantasy RPGs make is dialling down the competence of characters. Some of them also re-calibrate to tell more stories that are better suited to such characters; others throw Joe Blow against the same array of dragons, demons, liches etc., because heroism is only ‘genuine’ if characters are totally outmatched or whatever.

Not my style, personally; if I want to tell a story about more-or-less regular folks (who nonetheless have swords and fireballs), I want that story to have a similarly constrained scope.

Beyond the Wall: Such as this absolutely brilliant game, which couples the simplicity of older D&D rules with modern ideas about shared setting creation to tell stories of heroic teens defending their village from unnatural danger, with a tone more like Susan Cooper or Lloyd Alexander than Gary Gygax. It’s superb, it’s simple, it’s cheap – of all the games I’ve looked at, this is the one everyone should investigate.

Warhammer Fantasy RPG: Heroic teens too, well, heroic? How about playing a ratcatcher, failed student, ferryman or a bloke who hands out racist pamphlets in the pub? Long divorced from the miniatures games, the Warhammer RPG created its own legacy of grimy British humour, Holy Roman Empire aesthetics and reasonably simple mechanics. If you like your fantasy grubby and your names groanworthy, this is for you.

The One Ring: Of course, if you want smaller-than-life characters, you can’t go past hobbits. Of all the RPG adaptations of Tolkien’s books, I think this one comes closest to evoking the tone of the setting and its characters, with systems that make a simple burglar or scholar feel engaging and important but also limited and grounded. Sadly this game’s in Limbo at the moment due to licence changes; you can’t buy it digitally, but physical copies are still out there if you want to try it.

So okay, that’s three games that constrain characters and keep them grounded. Are there games that go more larger-than-life than D&D?

13th Age: There are, and this bad boy is my personal favourite (see my current campaign for details). 13th Age couples over-the-top cinematic action with broad, sweeping characters-influencing-setting rules, in a gonzo world stuffed full of fantasy tropes that doesn’t stop for breath long enough to acknowledge its ridiculousness. It’s not the best at explaining itself, and it’s definitely aimed at those who enjoy the game part of role-playing games, which makes it a bit inaccessible for newcomers, but not so much that you couldn’t have fun with it. Give me a yell if you get stuck; I’ll come help.

Rules complexity

On that last note, the game part of these games is simultaneously the best and worst part – or perhaps the most-and-least accessible part. Rules define characters and make actions concrete; they’re also a bunch of numbers/systems that constrain imagination. Some folks like that, some tolerate it, some bounce off and never come back to RPGs again.

Rules obviously shape game-stories in significant ways; they define what’s possible and what’s not (or at least what’s technically not possible, until you all agree to say that it is). Rules complexity also shapes story because it determines a level of detail; the more defined and specific the rule, the more defined and specific the manifestation of that rule in the story. If your alchemy rules require 10 difficult steps for brewing a potion, stories take shape around taking those steps; if the rules just ask for one dice roll and a bit of narrative colour, the story is going to be about the outcome and not the process.

The current (5th) edition of D&D is moderately complex; the 2nd was less so, the 3rd more so, the 4th put its complexity in a different place. There aren’t a lot of contemporary fantasy games that are more complex; that’s not what the market wants these days. But there are plenty of games that are less complex, and if you want something that gets out of the way so you can explore the story, here are two solid options that do that in slightly different ways.

Tiny Dungeon: Perhaps the epitome of the get-out-of-the-way philosophy, this game has a simple 1/2/3 dice system and imposes little structure during play, to the point where I personally find it a bit hollow. The game also comes with a lot of sample settings and tweaks; whether that’s useful depends on whether those ideas grab you. Its real strength is immediacy – you can create a character in about 5 minutes by picking 3-4 choices from a list, and then just start playing. That’s a powerful thing, especially for players that don’t as yet have concrete ideas.

Quest: The new kid in town, Quest has been gaining attention thanks to its accessible writing, whimsical and inclusive artstyle, emphasis on character and very solid marketing campaign. Its strength is its narrative focus – it asks players and GMs to define characters and stories primarily using bits of text and imagery rather than numbers. But that also means players need a strong vision and concrete ideas coming in, which can be a lot to ask when you’re new to this whole thing.

Of these two, I think Quest is more fun and interesting, but it’s more work up front; Tiny Dungeon isn’t as engaging, but you can get started on a moment’s notice. Consider what works for you.

…or just use D&D if you want

And what works for you may well be D&D after all – and that’s great.

These other games all alter the stories and flow of D&D-style fantasy in useful and worthwhile ways. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make those alterations using D&D, so long as you’re willing to put the work in and make changes to the way the game plays at your table.

Want D&D characters to be more grounded? Present them with realistic problems and difficult challenges. Want them heroic? Do the opposite, and present stories that emphasise the fantastic. You can ignore external problems to focus on emotion, you can make the tone as gritty or cinematic or silly as you like; you can simplify the game rules by just ignoring the ones you don’t like. You can even get cheaper or free versions of D&D if you want to save money and don’t mind missing out on the glossy hardcovers. You do you.

Ultimately, games like these are tools for shared storytelling. Each tool has its strengths and weaknesses, but what really dictates the success of that shared creation is the enthusiasm and creativity of those working together to craft it. If everyone at the table wants to have fun creating a D&D story, the D&D/not-D&D game involved is the least important step in reaching that goal.

Places to go, faces to punch

Is there more to talk about when it comes to D&D stories? Yes, because you need a context for those stories – a world of fantastic places to visit, dangerous adversaries to thwart and relationships to explore.

You need a setting. And we’ll talk about that next time.

Categories
games genre story

So you wanna do a D&D (part 2)

Okay, and we’re back with the second instalment of this series looking at the stories (and fun!) that come out of Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy role-playing games that you can play with friends over Zoom or whatever as the world crumbles away outside.

A reminder – this series is aimed at folks, especially writers and storytellers, who are interested in getting into D&D but don’t have much experience in playing/running RPGs. If you know such a person, tell them about these posts!

The D&D story revisited

Role-playing games are (to my mind at least) collaboratively creating and telling a story.

I said in my last post that D&D primarily creates a particular style of story – action-adventure fantasy stories about larger-than-life characters solving problems by going to dangerous locations and defeating antagonists.

In hindsight, I should have unpacked ‘action-adventure’ as an aspect of tone. The tone of modern D&D is less like The Lord of the Rings (the books) and more like The Lord of the Rings (the movies), and probably even more like The Hobbit (the movies, I’m sorry). Battles and physical action are the main theatre of conflict, but that action is neither cartoonish and slight or grim and heavy.

Just like The Hobbit, D&D features white men killing dudes while glowering sexily.

(Tone is one of the biggest points of variation amongst fantasy games, to the point where I can’t really pull it out as a separate topic and instead touch on it throughout this post.)

Anyway – if you like these kind of stories, and already own some D&D books, you’re good to go! If you want to try something else, let’s discuss this (very much non-exhaustive) selection of alternative fantasy games and the stories they create.

(A quick aside – Some of these games are available in print, while others are ebook only. That’s how publishing works now. I’ll give links where I can and you can dig into formats if anything catches your eye.)

The same but cheaper

The first works in any medium tend to set expectations and shape responses – that’s why so many ‘Golden Age’ sci-fi stories are fuckin’ racist – and gaming is no different. D&D kicked it all off, and 50-ish years later, there’s still a strong ‘this is what RPGs are meant to be’ school of thought.

These games were all written by D&D designers, feel pretty much like D&D, have rules about as complex as D&D‘s, and create stories that fit squarely into the D&D oeuvre. Except gamers won’t spend D&D money on games that aren’t called D&D, so these games all come as thick standalone books that don’t cost 200 bucks.

Pathfinder: In fact, this game was once D&D! Specifically, it’s a light reworking of D&D v3.5, made as a competitor product because a very noisy segment of the market hated D&D v4. Over time, it evolved to become… still exactly the same as D&D, but with a fanbase who will tell you it’s totally different. Pathfinder ain’t for me (even though I wrote an adventure for it), but if you like granular detail, high production values and long, epic adventures (that you will probably read but never run), give it a look.

Fantasy Age: While its rules are a bit simpler, this game’s style, tone and stories are solidly in the D&D wheelhouse. I’m personally more interested in its two sister games – Dragon Age (based on the video game) and Blue Rose (‘romantic fantasy’ ala Mercedes Lackey) as they have more distinctive tones – but Fantasy Age is solid. Also, a new edition is coming that uses the Freeport pirate-fantasy setting as its base; I helped develop that setting and can thus objectively say that this will be the greatest work of art ever crafted by human hand. Probably.

Shadow of the Demon Lord: This game takes the perennial RPG question ‘can my wizard cast a spell to make the orc shit himself to death?’ and runs with it. Like a Cradle of Filth song, this game walks the line between scary grossness and fun-to-laugh-at-grossness, and bluntly does a better job of it.While Shadow presents a big tonal shift, with lots of horror elements and black metal guitar riffs, it fully supports D&D-style stories.

Numenera: Some people believe that ‘fantasy’ and ‘science fantasy’ are meaningfully distinct genres. Some people will believe anything. Numenera presents itself as different and innovative, but the stories it encourages are just like those of D&D except with ‘nanotechnology!’ <jazz hands> instead of magic. Honestly, I don’t much care for it, but I know folks who find a lot of value in its tweaks to tone and flavour, and you might also be one of them.

Problem children

Let’s move on to games that depart from the established story template. Are there fantasy games that don’t revolve around solving problems?

…yes, but not that many. Problems and obstacles are great ways to present conflict, and we all accept that conflict is the foundation of all good stories. (Although Ursula le Guin disagreed, because she was smarter and wiser than other writers.) Also, fantasy is a genre that strongly pushes problem-solving as a trope because it means characters engage with the external world, and the point of fantasy is to present and explore an imagined world that clearly differs from our own.

Instead, fantasy games mostly differ in the types of problems they present. D&D problems tend to be ‘monster threatens to disrupt the status quo in awful ways, please sword it to death.’ What else is there?

Forbidden Lands: This Swedish game focuses around exploring the unknown as its main external challenge, generating stories about survival and discovery rather than heroism and fighting monsters – or at least, fighting monsters for the sake of helping others. It also has a grimy, Nordic prog rock feel to it that’s kinda fun.

Spire: This is a deconstructionist weird fantasy game about dark elf revolutionaries in a skyscraper, and somehow manages to make that concept not just work but sing. While its mission-based playstyle still throws challenges at players, those challenges are about overthrowing the status quo rather than defending it, generating stories about sacrifice, politics and change. It’s a bloody lovely game, this one.

Blades in the Dark: If D&D is an action movie, Blades is a heist film. It’s about criminal gangs in a haunted electropunk Edwardian city – interesting how far we’re drifting from elves and Hobbiton – and the core challenge is committing crimes and intrigues. And if you play long enough to build up momentum, these flip from external challenges (get hired to steal a thing) to internal ones (decide how/where to extend your criminal empire). That’s a really interesting story progression, and part of what makes Blades‘ long game compelling.

…but still, these games are all about external action. Where are the games about interiority and emotion? Turns out they’re largely on itch.io, where young designers with fresh ideas about games as both a medium and an industry are publishing innovative, passionate games about the personal stories that interest them. I’m still exploring the games here, but one that leapt out at me is Journey Away, a game about young people exploring their magical world, finding wonderful things and getting to know each other. It’s smart, positive and family-friendly, and generates stories about discovery and friendship in which external conflicts are largely incidental. I want to see more games like this, I want to play more games like this, and given the state of 2020, I want to believe in more stories like this.


There are more D&D-ish story elements and alternatives to discuss, but this post’s gone on far too long already.

Come back in a couple of weeks and let’s get stuck into character, complexity and maybe even which monsters to beat up.

Categories
games story

So you wanna do a D&D (part 1)

Have you heard? Everyone’s doing this D&D thing. Everyone. The olds, the yoof, the nerds, the cool kids, the creatives, your mum, uh, I dunno, dead people, everyone. Especially now that all of us live inside, in front of a computer screen, desperate for any distraction from the grinding maw of 2020 devouring all light and hope, the darkness, the eternity, the voice like two gravestones grinding together, the lockdown, the anti-life,

What does 'Darkseid is' mean? - Quora

…okay, this is off to a great start.

Take two

So yeah, everyone loves D&D now, everyone listens to D&D podcasts and watches D&D livestreams and goes to D&D-themed drag queen shows and none of this makes any sense to old geeks like me but hey, fine, let’s roll with it, life is strange.

And as an established/certified Nerd Whisperer, I find more and more people – co-workers, relatives, casual acquaintances, authors, artists, editors, academics, arts administrators (much respect), the blokes down the bottle-shop – asking me how to play D&D.

(They never offer to pay me for this guidance, but that’s fine. It’s fine.)

I didn’t ask to have this great responsibility put upon my broad shoulders, but I will carry this weight because I am the hero you need, rather than the hero you deserve (who has much narrower shoulders). That’s right, I’m gonna write a few posts (hopefully not spaced too far apart) about How 2 D&D – and, because this is still theoretically a writer’s blog, how to create and enjoy D&D stories (whatever those are) and/or different forms of fantasy stories though playing games.

(If you’re not clear on what D&D is, a) sorry, this is gonna be a dull series of posts for you, b) my bestest mate Ben McKenzie wrote a Medium article about them a few years back that will sort you right out, go give it a read, it’s fun.)

Let’s start with the most fundamental question.

What’s the deal with Dungeons & Dragons?

D&D – and all the other creations within the role-playing game milieu, of which there are thousands – is a game that involves folks sitting around a table (or a video chat window, these days) and contributing ideas to the real-time creation of a shared story. It gives players different roles and/or characters to shape their involvement in that story, and uses a system of rules to determine the outcomes of actions and decisions in that shared creative space. Oh, and it’s fun.

(If you don’t like that description, you’re experienced enough that you probably have one that you prefer, so just pretend I said that instead.)

Components not pictured – weird dice, notebooks, beer, other people

D&D comes in the form of three hardcover books – the Players’ Handbook (how to make characters, all the rules, lots and lots of magic spells), Dungeon Master’s Guide (rules and advice on creating and ‘running’ (being in charge of) settings and games) and Monster Manual (a collection of bad things characters are meant to stab, zap and generally thwart). There are also a bunch of other resources you can buy, whether big hardcover resources or small, independent digital products, but I’m not bothering with any of that at the moment.

The game has been around in various forms since the 1970s; the current version is the 5th edition. Don’t buy the wrong edition by accident! I think 4th Edition is the best the game ever was, but all your cool nerd children will be confused/horrified if you bring it home.

The default D&D story

More germane to this blog is that D&D is designed to facilitate certain kinds of fantasy stories. These involve:

  • larger-than-life heroes, or at least characters who become larger-than-life over a (short) period of time
  • similarly LTL/melodramatic antagonists, usually in the form of monsters and villains
  • a focus on solving external problems, such as the machinations of the antagonists
  • action and adventure, most often manifested as combat with those antagonists
  • a world of both fantastic and mundane elements to explore.

(There are also some common D&D tropes, like a semi-medieval setting, a variety of different sentient peoples and the power/prevalence of magic, but I see those more as expressions of story than types, and it’s my blog so it’s my rules.)

To summarise, D&D primarily creates action-adventure fantasy stories about larger-than-life characters solving problems by going to dangerous locations (e.g. dungeons) and defeating antagonists (e.g. dragons).

I don’t mean this as a criticism – I fuckin’ love those kinds of stories. I’ve been playing games about those kinds of stories for more than 30 years! But they’re not the be- and end-all of fantasy, even if you pull a Borders and stick all the urban fantasy and magical realist novels on the Literature or Romance shelves ‘cos only books with elves go in Fantasy.

If you want to make fantasy stories with a more personal feel, that don’t revolve around conflict and problem-solving, that focus on interiority or exploration of cultural/spiritual meaning… D&D won’t stop you from doing that, but it won’t help you either, and the tools it does provide might distract you from those goals. After all, when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail; when all you have is a warhammer, two healing potions and a dungeon map, every problem looks like a monster that needs smiting.

‘Fall before the might of my rich internal emotional life! Faalllllll!

(Was my preferred edition any different? No, not at all. This isn’t that kind of long D&D polemic.)

Do I come to praise D&D or to bury it?

Why are those the only two options?

D&D is fine. D&D is good, actually – especially if you want to co-create D&D-style stories, and are happy bringing your own material to bear if/when you want to explore other concepts. That’s what all the folks do in their D&D shows and ‘casts, after all.

But if you want a story that’s more A Wizard of Earthsea than Gord the Rogue, or more encouragement/support for exploring character, or rules about intrigue and romance, or fewer and simpler rules overall, or you simply don’t want to drop 200 frickin’ bucks on a game you’re not that sure you’ll like… well, maybe D&D isn’t the D&D for you.

Come back next time and we’ll look at some alternatives and the kind of stories they produce. That should be in… let’s say two weeks.

I can’t write next week – I’ll be doing some D&D.

Categories
blogging character games reading

Lockdown Reloaded

Greetings from Melbourne.
Ain’t this fun?

*takes long pull from bottle of bourbon*
*looks out into the darkness*

Well, looks like we’ll be stuck here for a while. May as well catch up, maybe talk about some lockdown reads.

Speaking of lockdown reads, sales of The Obituarist 3 are… like, okay? Good? Bad? I don’t know, I just work here.

Let me add up the data – looks like 21 copies sold (on Amazon and Smashwords) since launch in early May, which means about… 40 Aussie bucks in revenue? As opposed to the $450 I spent on editing and cover design?

Yeah, well, so it goes. It’s a good book, but its market is limited. (Possibly just to people who know me.) I could probably generate more sales if I did more promotion, but we’re in the middle of a pandemic and a global struggle to confront systemic institutional racism. No-one needs me distracting people from what really matters by tweeting about a book.

It’s written, it’s out there, people will find it. Maybe tell your friends about the series if they want lockdown reads. That’s enough marketing from me.

(I really should update the site page, though. Maybe next week.)

And speaking of lockdown reads, let’s talk about games. Games that involve reading and writing (so educational)!

Thousand Year Old Vampire is a solo journaling RPG by Tim Hutchings, and if you’re like me-from-last-month then that concept might need a little unpacking.

The game presents a conceptual framework – you’re a vampire that lives so long that they can’t retain their memories – and then provides you with a large series of writing prompts (most of which have mechanical impacts as well). Rolling dice to navigate through the prompts, you write journal entries to record events while also translating that into your vampire’s unstable set of memories. Eventually you reach an ending, and have an epistolary narrative that you can read, share or just think about when you want to be sad.

While accurate, that description glosses over two key points:

  1. This game is brilliant, with a fantastic mix of simple mechanisms and evocative prompts that constantly push you to generate dark, emotionally engaging stories.
  2. This game makes writing fun, something I generally find inconceivable. My playthrough, telling the story of the fallen Ukrainian nun Penelopa, was some of the most playful joy I’ve gained from my own writing in maybe a decade.

Whether you’re a writer or a gamer (or both), there’s so much here to direct your creativity into fascinating stories while also enjoying solo lockdown fun. The PDF is cheap; the print book is apparently gorgeous but will cost you a mortgage payment in shipping right now. You do you – just make sure to pick it up.

And speaking of lockdown reads, let’s talk about a TV show, yes I know that’s a terrible segue.

I finally started watching She-Ra and the Princesses of Power on Netflix, and it’s as good as people have been saying for the last couple of years – a smart, savvy, energetic science-fantasy cartoon that never takes itself too lightly or too seriously, and is just crammed full of awesome teenage girl characters demonstrating agency.

(The plotting and worldbuilding is maybe a little uneven at times, but that is not why you watch a show like this.)

From a YA writer’s point-of-view, the most compelling part of the show is the way it establishes and develops character. The foundation of She-Ra‘s characterisation is love and friendship – presented not just as a positive force, but also as something that can go bad, fall short or distract from what matters. Everything in the show has its foundation in that core, and it’s an amazing demonstration of how you can use the common emotional understandings of your (largely teenage) audience as a way to express complexities and tensions that that audience will connect with.

Also, it’s pretty queer. And we need more queer TV.

Go binge this over a couple of weekends while you’re bouncing around lockdown – there’s a lot to learn from it and a lot of feelings to be felt. And goddamnit, I would die for Scorpia. She just wants to be loved.

And speaking of lockdown reads (shut up okay), how about you don’t read that self-serving bullshit screed that JK Rowling and a gaggle of alt-right fuck-knuckles published last week, whinging about cancel culture?

Here’s this blog’s position on all that:

‘Cancel culture’ is just what privileged people call ‘facing the consequences of my actions’ or possibly ‘being criticised because I used my power and influence to yell my fuckin’ garbage opinions all over the internet’.

Boo fuckin’ hoo, JK; go spew your transphobic white noise into the bowlful of £100 bills you have for breakfast every morning.

One of the few positives to this unending trash fire we now live in is that as the boundaries of polite society fall into the abyss, more and more people are looking around and saying, ‘wait, no, FUCK THIS SHIT, I won’t have it any more’, and calling people out on how they contribute to the problem. Whether it’s Rowling being hateful trash, Warren Ellis being a serial predator upon and betrayer of women (something I’m pretty fuckin’ upset about) or, I dunno, the entire corrupt system of police power and control in the world’s most powerful nation, we’ve had enough. Get in the fuckin’ bin with you.

Here’s a mission statement: if I ever get into a position where I a) have power and b) abuse it, y’all have my permission to cancel me harder and faster than Australia’s Naughtiest Home Videos.

…not that that seems likely if I don’t write more books.

*takes long drag on cigarette*
*coughs up a lung, throws half-finished cancer stick in the bin*

I should probably do that, then.

Stay safe, friends.

Categories
games linkage writing

February comes at you fast

Okay, blog time. When did I last write a post? One week ago? Two?

…four? On like the last day of January?

Huh.

I guess that’s how blogging works when you have increasingly less and less to say or enlighten people about.

So fine! We’re in End-of-Month-Summary-Purgatory, and perhaps one day we will make our way out of it, like jailbreaking ghosts escaping Spirit Prison to at last drink ecto-cooler in the Spirit Paradise hot tub.

Seems legit.

Query-go-round

Most of what I’ve been doing this month, and for the last several months, is talking with agents, and by ‘talking with’ I mean ‘getting form rejection emails from’. That’s not the most encouraging or motivating of things, but I keep at it. I’ve had a few more personal rejections, which are useful and worthwhile, and there are still a couple of people reading manuscripts and considering Raven’s Blood.

Do I have any tips for querying? Nothing particularly earth-shattering. I wrote a standard query email with an intro, flavourful high-concept pitch for the book and a super-short bio, and I fine-tune it for every agent I approach. (And based on recent feedback, I include a note that the book uses British punctuation and spelling, so any oddities are probably because I’m foreign, not because I don’t know how quotes work.) I keep a spreadsheet of names, agencies, what they’re after and how to submit, which I follow to the letter, and I keep track of when things go out and when they come back. As for where I find agents to contact, I’m drawing info from the usual places – AgentQuery, Writer’s Digest, WritersMarket etc – and keeping 6-7 queries going at a time.

Most of all, I’m polite. I thank them for their time and attention when I get in contact, and don’t take it personally when they knock me back. (Which doesn’t really seem like rocket surgery – but still, you’d be surprised how some people get this wrong.) I’m not crawly or fawning or whatever, just pleasant and polite – and while that won’t get me special treatment, it won’t hurt if/when I come back to those agents with a new project.

Just as soon as I find a home for this one.

13th Age goodies

What’s 13th Age? It’s a role-playing game that is pretty much like 4E D&D but different in ways that don’t really merit a huge amount of wordcount right now. It’s pretty cool.

What’s also cool is The Forgotten Monk, Greg Stolze’s 13th Age novel that he kickstarted back in early 2015. It’s the story of an amnesiac kung-fu fantasy detective getting into fights with ghosts, demons and hags in an attempt to learn his backstory and understand mortal morality. It’s a damn fine adventure novel, and well worth a read even if you’re not into RPGs but like books about magic and superkicks and gnome shenanigans.

What’s also, also cool (and the point of this ramble) is that the stretch goals for the Kickstarter were free short stories about some of the minor characters in the novel, written by gaming luminaries Jonathan Tweet, Ron Heinsoo, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan and I DUNNO SOME RANDOM ASSCLOWN yours truly.

For whatever reason, these stories were written ages back but not released – but now they are! And they’re free! And you don’t need to have read the book or played the game to make sense of them! WHAT A FREAKIN’ DEAL!

If that sounds tempting to you, there are links to download all four stories (in various digital formats) over at Greg’s Kickstarter page, no purchase or login required. Mine is called ‘Imperial Business’ and features a character named Sergeant Dovestrom, who may well be the biggest douchebag in The Forgotten Monk (which is saying something). It’s a little bit action, a little bit horror, a little bit fantasy; it’s kind of like ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ except it’s about an unpleasant soldier and a flying murderlion and the sparks that fly when they meet.

…that probably makes it sound more romantic than it really is. Sorry.

Other gaming news

Speaking of roleplaying games, man, I sure am doing a lot of that right now. Probably too much, let’s be honest.

My urban fantasy game (the one I talked about last time) is kicking along, with two sessions of drama and running through sewers and negotiating with demons – all the traditional stuff. One player is moving to Canada to write video games about space ninjas, so there’s some rethinking and tweaking in the near future – but so far, everyone’s having a good time.

On the side, I’m also running a short InSpectres game that is turning out even sillier than expected (these ghostbusters also run a pizza restaurant and their cases all seem to involve CHUDs), and organising self-contained Fiasco games in local shops/bars at the end of every month. And now I’ve signed up to play a game of 5E D&D. Which I’m sure I’ll enjoy, even though my heart will always belong to 4E.

But really. Something’s gotta give at some point. I’m starting to dream about dice. And, more pertinently, not getting enough work done.

Congrats to my friends with work ethics

There are people who have been getting work done, though, and I’m proud to call some of them friend, acquaintance, Tweep or at least person-I-keep-meeting-in-festival-bars. So I want to take a moment to call some folks out for being awesome:

  • Alan Baxter, Kirstyn McDermott, Amie Kaufman, Jay Kristoff, Kim Wilkins and favourite-blog-commentator Dave Versace for their shortlist nominations in this year’s Aurealis Awards for Australian spec-fic.
  • Jay Kristoff (again) and Justine Larbalestier, who are on the longlist for the YA Inky Awards.
  • Peter Ball and the QWC team for getting this year’s GenreCon up and running already! This time I promise not to hog the karaoke mike.

These are good folks. Y’all should read their stuff.

Finally, this month’s excuses for not writing enough of Obituarist 3

  • I was super-busy at work
  • And I had work travel as well
  • It was hot
  • I was tired
  • New baby (not mine, but nearby)
  • Anne Gracie got me drunk
  • Trump
  • Turnbull
  • Rain of fire and frogs
  • END TIMES?!?!?!
  • Mediocre Playstation games
  • *sigh* I’m just not, like, feeling it, you know?
  • I’ve lost so much blood
  • [insert image of coffee mug saying World’s Worst Everything]

Now, March. I turn 46 in a couple of weeks.

Let’s see if I can finish something before I hit 47.

Categories
games worldbuilding

World-building is a hell of a drug

I get distracted easily.

Don’t even try to pretend it’s not true.

So when I want to focus on writing, one of the first things I need to do is pare away my distractions. I’m not much of a TV guy, but I either stop watching or limit myself to watching in lull periods, like the two episodes of Young Justice I allow myself on Saturday mornings. Video games are my crack, so I make sure not to have any hanging over my head that can suck me in for hours on end; right now, all I have in the PS4 is Bloodborne, and I can only play that for maybe 30 minutes before becoming so stressed and upset that I can’t continue. Social engagements and beer… well, those are important to me, but as a project gets more and more pressing, those things gradually drop down the priority list.

And then there are roleplaying games.

Sigh.

I started a new RPG campaign this month, one I plan to run every two weeks, because I am a goddamn idiot.

Shadows of New Jerusalem is an urban fantasy campaign that I’m hoping to run for the rest of 2017. (Maybe into 2018, if my players are keen.) This is a concept I’ve actually talked about before on the blog, way back in… jesus shit, back in 2013. (although it’s morphed a lot since then.)

My original plan for the game was an ‘anthology’ game using the Chronicles of Darkness setting, but I gave up on that after some of 2016’s games didn’t pan out so well. I felt that I wanted a game with very strong player buy-in and minimal upfront reading/effort – which suggested a much more collaborative approach was needed.

So I got a group together, pitched a basic concept (urban fantasy, Fate system) and we went around coming up with ideas about what we did and didn’t want to see in the game, as per the whiteboard below. After some more back and forth, we had a rough sketch of a game about a family of dodgy artefact merchants, scavenging for mystic items and doing deals with otherworldly forces, along with some initial plot hooks and NPC names.

There’s plenty of conceptual and tonal fodder there, and it didn’t take me long to put together some ideas that would be enough to launch a game and run with, developing them as we play.

But then the high kicks in.

Hey, maybe I should define what non-mortal magic can and can’t do. Or pin down some location interconnections. Oh man, I should definitely stat out half-a-dozen NPCs and creatures for each faction so that I have someone/thing to hand whenever the need arises! How about I create specific Photoshop filters and processes, then make like 50 individual pieces of character and setting art!

And obviously I need to write aaaaalllllll that stuff down so that it makes sense to someone who isn’t me!

This urge to fill in all the gaps ahead of the game, to nail down every possible option so that I have what I need at all times… it’s a powerful urge, and it’s utterly wrong-headed. Especially in a game where a lot of that detail is either a) unimportant, or b) supposed to be created collaboratively with my players.

Making stuff is great – if it gets used.

Making stuff for its own sake? That’s just another distraction.

It’s the same for me and writing. I know there are authors who do tonnes of worldbuilding ahead of time, and use their rock-solid grasp on their setting as the framework for choosing and shaping their stories, and I respect that. But I don’t understand it.

For me, story is something that comes together through decisions and in-the-moment choices, rather than through planning. If a story needs a distinct world, I’ll do a little rough work at the start, but not a lot – you’ve pretty much seen the entirety of my notes and planning for both Raven’s Blood and the Obituarist books here on the blog over the last couple of years. The bare minimum I need to know what things look and sound like in chapter 1, and then make it up as I go along.

When I get sidelined by worldbuilding, I’m not actually telling/making stories. I have a bad habit of forgetting that when it comes to games, but I’m trying to keep it under control. I’m just grateful that when it comes to writing – arguably the space where things need to be more coherent and polished at the start, I know – I’m mostly able to ignore that urge and just charge headlong at things like a loon.

Mostly.

The Obituarist III continues apace – slowly than I would like, yes, but I’m on it.

And if you’re interested in seeing whether the Shadow family will outwit the Butcher Bishop and the schemes of Valentine, you can follow our New Jerusalem game over on Obsidian Portal. 

It’ll be cool. I promise.

Categories
games wrestling writing

All the wide world round

(Pardon the downtime between posts; I’ve been working on a proofreading job with a tight deadline.)

So yeah, professional wrestling. We’ve established that I love like it a lot; now how best to express that love like? Watching wrestling on TV/the internet is the obvious answer, and I’ve been doing just that lately. Watching live shows is fun too, and there’s a lucha libre and burlesque show happening next week (oh, Melbourne) that I want to catch. Doing it myself… well, no, because I’m old and my knees dislocate if you look at them hard.

But there’s one other way to experience wrestling, in a way, and that’s by pretending to be a wrestler. Which brings us to the World Wide Wrestling roleplaying game.

download

I wrote a while back about the Powered by the Apocalypse family of RPGs, and World Wide Wrestling (or WWW) is one of the most interesting of that suite. I’ve just started running a short campaign, which is turning out to be very silly; it’s all aliens, werewolves and time travellers brawling in a cursed RSL. Gameplay writeups are on Obsidian Portal, with GMing notes on my gaming Tumblr, Save vs Facemelt, if that sort of thing interests you.

But this isn’t a gaming blog, it’s a writing blog. So if we’re primarily interested in action storytelling, what kind of thought fodder does WWW provide?

Understand your tools

As with other PtbA games, WWW provides the GM with a set of agendas to keep in mind throughout play, principles to refer to when developing scenes and moves to make that keep gameplay moving. These are the core tools for the GM, and the GM is meant to use only these tools (although WWW is more forgiving on this than some related games), because they’re designed to produce a satisfying game for all players.

I won’t go on about these things in detail (I did that last time), but WWW‘s suite of gameplay tools are very strong because they clearly and effectively emphasise the nature of professional wrestling stories, conflicts and shows. But even then, they’re unlikely to do that if you just pick moves at random, or apply principles without considering why they say what they do. You need to look at wrestling, look at the tool, consider the connection and understand why it’s valuable to ‘make the world seem constructed but frail’, or how sticking a microphone in a wrestler’s face opens opportunities to demonstrate character.

WWW doesn’t set a terribly high bar for understanding, and it explains what it can, but it makes it clear that you need to do a little conceptual work to get the most of your tools, just as you do in the larger world of writing and story creation.

Embrace your genre

I’ve seen a few wrestling RPGs over the years, and almost all of them focused heavily or exclusively on the kayfabe side of things – you played a wrestler, your opponents were other wrestlers, and the mechanics existed to explore matches in blow-by-blow detail. But that’s only part of the wrestling genre, and that focus excludes a lot of what gives in-ring action flavour and meaning.

WWW is broader than this; it embraces the metatextual tension between the reality and the fiction of wrestling, and uses both worlds as a setting for play. As I said to my players, it’s a game where you spend 50% of your time in the ring as The Rock, 40% of it backstage as The Rock, and 10% of it as Dwayne Johnson organising cross-promotion efforts between the wrestling promotion and the film studio for your new movie.

Most genres aren’t neat, simple things; they’re tracts of conceptual space with fuzzy borders and idiosyncratic corners. A lot of stories land in one part of that space and try to maintain control over the local narrative environment, and there’s nothing wrong with that (other than being a fairly iffy metaphor). But there’s also fun in embracing the other aspects, taking in the less straightforward ideas and exploring the tension between seemingly incompatible genre concepts, just as WWW does with reality vs kayfabe.

Remember your audience

Roleplaying is usually a private affair, experienced only by the half-dozen or so folks at the table. (Yeah, I know ‘actual play’ videos and podcasts have become a thing, but I’m not counting those because I don’t like ’em.) WWW asks players to bend that assumption and act as if their characters are trying to entertain a viewing audience – one that loves in-ring action, watches backstage interactions and enjoys the metatext of breaking kayfabe. Every part of play is aimed at that audience – especially matches, which operate by narrating interesting, engaging sequences rather than rolling dice to see if you manage to hit with your five-star frogsplash.

Writing is also an act aimed at an audience, whether a large body of readers or just the author his/herself. It’s a creative act that functions by communicating ideas to an audience, and the audience has to read the text to understand what’s going on. That seems obvious, but it’s easy to forget that readers still need a little exposition or explanation here and there to provide context, or that they won’t be able to fully understand a scene because they don’t have your knowledge of backstory.

WWW reminds me that I have to play to an audience when I write, even if I don’t necessarily know who that audience will be; it also reminds me that maybe I should try to work that out, and what that audience might want, before I finish the story.

Is it silly to hold a game about grappling and smacktalk up like it’s On Writing? Well, a bit. But you gather your rosebuds where you may, and I think the mark of a strong game – or film, or book, or interpretive dance sequence – is that it makes you think about your own work, even if just for a minute or two.

Anyway, World Wide Wrestling is pretty fun. I’m running the next session of my game in a few hours; let’s see if El Gastro can solve The Mystery of the Haunted RSL while also dropping some piledrivers onto Ned Kelly.

Also in this blog instalment, GENERAL LIFE UPDATE

I have a new day job! Next week I return to the world of educational publishing, which seems to be my eternal niche now, and start making textbooks again. I’m looking forward to it; three months of freelancing, dogwalking and not-doing-enough-novel-writing was plenty, thank you.

What will this do to my writing output and blogging schedule?

Well, it can hardly make it worse, can it?

Categories
games ghost raven reading

Post-stocktake audit

Hey folks!

So last update was a bit downbeat, even if I tried to look on the positive at the end. (I’m a regular Pollyanna like that.)

Things haven’t substantially changed since then, but my mood is better and I’m even more inclined to accentuate the positive. So on that note, and because I can’t think of anything too substantial to talk about this week, let’s talk about some Things What Are Pretty Good.

Freelance work

I’m getting a fair bit of it! And people have actually started paying their invoices this week, which is awfully nice.

I also worked last Saturday at the election, spending the day issuing declaration ballots at a local polling centre. That was kind of fun and interesting for a large part of the day – you get to chat to people and get a feel for their character when you’re asking them where they live and finding their voting papers. Once the polls closed and we had to spend almost seven freakin’ hours reconciling paperwork, counting votes and sorting the gigantic Senate ballots into messy piles (above the line, below the line, informal, drawings of penises and angry screeds)… that part was less fun. And very tiring, which is why I didn’t post anything last weekend.

I have stories I could share about that experience, but I think I’m legally prohibited from doing so publicly. If you see me in person, buy me a beer and I’ll explain to you how awful democracy is, and why it took a week to work out a government.

Writing work

Still not a huge amount of progress on this lately, since overlapping freelance gigs have taken up a lot of my headspace, and I gotta make that cheddar somehow. Still, I’ve been working on tweaking the dialogue in Raven’s Blood to make it a little less archaic for some of the characters. I was trying to invoke a bit of Elizabethan manner and idiosyncrasy in the characters’ speech patterns (especially swearing), but on reflection it’s more important to keep dialogue accessible and immediate, at least for the viewpoint characters. (Plus it lets me show immediate contrasts between them and more mannered, formal characters.)

Once I do the dialogue revision, the next thing is to get this book in the hands of a few agents and go the hard sell on the series. I’ve been researching appropriate agents for this kind of work, and I’m pulling together a query letter and book/series pitches into a package. Soon I’ll be releasing it into the wild – or at least emailing the names in my spreadsheet.

Yeah, I got a spreadsheet. That’s how you know I’m serious.

Books

I’m still trying to improve my reading practice and schedule reading time; some days I’m better at it than others.

Right now I’m most of the way through The Squared Circle, David Shoemaker’s history of professional wrestling in the 20th century. Specifically, looking at that history through stories of dead wrestlers. That sounds grim, and it is terribly sad in places, but Shoemaker’s writing is both intelligent and compassionate; he uses the stories of the dead to show how they shaped (and still shape) the land of the living.

There are also piledrivers.

I’ve also been reading Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook, a really fascinating writing guide that focuses more on inspiring and shaping imagination than it does on rules of grammar, plot construction or time management. (Although those are in there too.) Beautifully illustrated, engaging written and at times appallingly irritating, I don’t agree with everything in it but I want to keep reading it. Sadly it’s back at the library now, but I’m going to overcome my cheapskate impulses once I get another freelance cheque and buy it (along with Vandermeer’s more prosaic Booklife, which is about effective practice) for some sustained deep reading.

Music

I just keep listening to Grimes’ Art Angels over and over again.

You know how it is.

Games

I’m about to start running a short game of the World Wide Wrestling RPG, as I continue falling back into the world of pro wrestling I left a decade ago. However, this game is set in a haunted RSL, with wrestlers that include a werewolf, a glitter-addicted alien and a puppy summoner, so I think it will be less tragic than mid-00s WWE.

I’ve also been playing a bit of Pillars of Eternity, a CRPG that I’ve been wanting to play for a while and that was finally on sale. It’s a modern game in its own setting that reuses the style (and most of the systems) of old D&D CRPGs like Baldur’s Gate. It’s an interesting one, and there’s a lot to like in its plotting and development; it’s a great lesson in how to draw multiple stories, characters and situations out of a tight set of consistent themes and motifs. It’s also a great lesson in how execution can undercut mood, and how catering to the whims of 70 000 Kickstarter patrons can damage both story and gameplay.

Hmm. Might write more about it when I finish. Probably in a few months.

MY POKEMANS LET ME SHOW YOU THEM

IMG_1798

Um, I mean… the local wildlife is kinda weird in this suburb.

So anyhoo, that’s what I’m up to.

Check back soon and see whether I have anything interesting to say.

It’s gotta happen eventually.

Categories
games writing

Apocalypse now

As we all know, I’m a big ol’ nerd (you knew that, right?) as well as a sporadic and undisciplined writer. In the past I’ve blogged – oh man, it was almost 18 months ago – about particular roleplaying games that writers could get useful ideas and inspiration from.

Well, it’s that time again – but this time I want to talk about one game. Which is also an entire family of unrelated games from different creators and companies. And it’s a collection of games that presents a really powerful set of story-creation tools that are just as useful for prose as for punching mutants.

That game is Apocalypse World, created by Vincent Baker, which went on to spawn dozens of ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’ games.

Apocalypse-World-_bn39089

These games share a lot of the same core mechanics and systems, but that’s not what I’m interested in talking about. Instead, I want to look at the specific set of GMing tools the games also share. The GM (generally) never rolls dice in PbtA games, but they also don’t just make up results on a whim. Instead, there are non-mechanical story-creation imperatives that the GM uses to make decisions and determine outcomes – imperatives that can also be applied for writing fiction.

Agendas

Your creative agendas in a PbtA game are the big-picture ideas you keep in mind during the whole process – from setting up the campaign and coming up with story ideas to setting every scene and winding up every session. As Dungeon World puts it, these are ‘the things you aim to do at all times’. In that game, which is heroic fantasy in the D&D mold, the agenda is:

  • Portray a fantastic world
  • Fill the characters’ lives with adventure
  • Play to find out what happens

153464Meanwhile, in the political urban fantasy game Urban Shadows, the agenda is:

  • Make the city feel political and dark
  • Keep the characters’ lives out of control and evolving
  • Play to find out what happens.

(‘Play to find out what happens’ is a key rule in PbtA games; it’s an admonition against scripting or pre-planning, in favour of setting up situations and seeing how they shake out. Which is great fun for gaming, but less relevant to writing. Mostly.)

When writing fiction, you need to keep a similar agenda in mind – the high-concept knot of tone, theme, story, setting and character that makes your story work. In some ways it just boils down to ‘Create an interesting setting and populate it with interesting characters who have interesting lives’ (where the value of ‘interesting’ depends on a variety of genre, theme and tone markers, plus your own unique takes).

That seems really obvious – and it is. But really obvious things are worth remembering, because sometimes they fade into background noise and get lost. When a story slows down or stops moving, when characters become comfortable and stop changing, when world details stop being colourful and just become sensible – that’s when you need to come back to that agenda and remind yourself of the fundamental goals.

Principles

Running a game is all about coming up with ideas, and principles are the criteria you use to weigh up ideas and see if they fit. When running a PbtA game, the GM is responsible for setting and starting the majority of scenes; their principles are the guidelines they consult to see if those scenes are right for this game.

tremulus is a PtbA game about Lovecraftian horror, and its principles are guides like:

  • Introduce the strange, the weird, and the alien at every opportunity.
  • Look through a cracked lens of madness.
  • Ask provocative questions. Build upon the answers.
  • Successes should be bittersweet at best, with rewards few and far between.

Meanwhile, the remarkably awesome World Wide Wrestling game has principles that include:

  • Explain the audience reaction
  • Describe everything as larger than life
  • Use a real-world cause for a kayfabe effect; use a kayfabe cause for a real-world effect
  • Book for maximum drama

(‘Kayfabe’ means ‘treating wrestling as real’, sort of. It’s complex.)

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Fundamentally, then, principles are the tools that help you distinguish between different games – that let you say ‘this is a horror scene, this is a wrestling scene’ and have that be more that just talking about set dressing.

While agendas are big-picture, principles are middle-picture; they’re the elements of theme and tone that establish your story in its genre while also acting as its unique points of difference. When you’re writing your story, you need to ask yourself every now and then: ‘Does this fit? Is this right for my world, my characters, my tone?’ Because sometimes we get that great idea that we try to fit it, but it won’t line up with everything else, and we waste time and energy until finally giving up on it. Keeping principles close to mind/hand won’t stop those ideas coming, but might help you get past them and stay on thematic track.

Moves

Finally, moves are the actions and outcomes the GM takes within scenes – the tools they use to decide what happens when the player rolls badly, or looks across the table for an idea of where things are going. Principles are set-up; moves are follow-through.

night_witches_cover-683x1024Night Witches is a historical game about female Polish bomber pilots in WWII (and it’s amazing). Its moves include:

  • Bring their gender into it
  • Bring a threat to bear
  • Put them somewhere they don’t want to be
  • Doubt them and demand discipline

While in the superhero adventures of Worlds in Peril, some GM moves are:

  • Show a downside to their character, appearance, equipment or power
  • Encourage creative use of powers
  • Change the environment
  • Introduce a new faction or type of enemy

There’s crossover there, of course, because moves are dramatic turns and progressions in the story, and things like ‘change location’ makes sense in any dramatic story. But the spin you put on each move, in accordance with agenda and principle, makes the difference, as do the unique moves for each games. For a story about defying gender roles, putting gender front and centre underlines the entire thing, while supers stories are full of ‘these aliens were actually being controlled by Dr Doom all along!’ type twists.

When you’re writing, moves are… do I even need to explain it? These are the little-picture building blocks of plot and character; the things that keep stories moving, twisting and changing. Agendas shape; principles guide; moves act. Moves are what makes stories go.

So what do I do with these?

Am I saying you should come up with agendas, principles and moves for your novel? Am I saying you should write these things down and consult them as you write? Am I saying you should codify every tool in your kit?

No, I’m not. But I’m not saying you shouldn’t do those things either.

What I think is that it can be worth thinking about what makes your story your story. What’s the point of your story? What are the themes? What’s the tone? What kind of characters fit into it, and what kind of things could happen to them? It can be easy to think of what doesn’t work – hmm, maybe I won’t put an extended car-chase and bloody shootout into my Regency romance – but we don’t always articulate and define the story-space that we do want to work in. Thinking about agendas, principles and moves – purpose, themes, story elements – ahead of time can help with that, and so can writing them down and sticking them above your desk if you’re that way inclined.

I’m trying out the wall-sticking route at the moment. And trying to define my story-space before I get too deep into it. It might work, it might not, but it’s worth a shot.

Which games?

If you want to take a closer look at a game that’s Powered by the Apocalypse – well, I reckon that’s an excellent idea. You might get a stronger grasp on these concepts than you can from my ramblings – and even better, you might find a game you want to play.

The obvious choice is Apocalypse World itself, especially as the Kickstarter campaign for the 2nd edition just went live this week (and helped prompt this blog post). That said, it’s not the game I’d recommend – partly because you won’t be able to get the finished game until September, partly because I find Vincent Baker’s authorial voice incredibly irritating. (He’s a great designer, but I have to push myself to read his work because it pisses me off so often.)

Fortunately, there’s a massive family of PbtA games that build on Baker’s ideas with their own voices and visions. Not all of them are great, let’s be honest, but the best of them are brilliant. The standouts include:

  • Night Witches (war, gender politics and nightly desperation)
  • Monsterhearts (young supernaturals in transgressive love/lust)
  • World Wide Wrestling (who thought a wresting game would be this damn good)
  • Urban Shadows (the talking-plotting-scheming kind of urban horror/fantasy)
  • Monster of the Week (the shooty-punchy-splodey kind of urban horror/fantasy)

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Plus a bunch of others that are really good. Look around. You’ll find something.

Right, that’s 1500 words on nerd tools for storytelling.

Does this mean the long blog drought of 2015/16 has finally broken?

Ask again next week. The Magic 8-Ball remains unclear.