Categories
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:

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.

Categories
games story worldbuilding writing

Wiki wiki woo

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

WARNING

WARNING

WILD AND CRAZY GUY OVER HERE

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.

OH DAMN I CROSSED THE STREAMS

Categories
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.

Pacing

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.)

Categories
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.

gw002

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.

Categories
character games genre story worldbuilding writing

Guild Wars 2 – the storytelling dos and don’ts (part 1)

Look, I make excuse after excuse about why Raven’s Blood is taking longer than expected, and many of those are more-or-less true, but here’s the real reason – I’ve been playing the shit out of Guild Wars 2 for like the last four months.

I have an addictive personality, and MMOs scratch that itch harder than Wolverine with shingles. Which is a terrible metaphor, I know.

Anyway, I’ve been wasting a lot of time on exploring Tyria, fighting elder dragons and experimenting with various ingredient combinations to level up my cooking skills. And something that’s become clear to me is that GW2 is a game based heavily around story, character and exploration, and that it uses some interesting techniques to get those elements across while still delivering lots of action and fights. So, much like I did with Batman: Arkham City last year, I’d like to look at how Guild Wars 2 uses the tools in the storytelling chest to make something that’s more than just whacking digital pinatas for imaginary gold – and how sometimes it uses those tools well and sometimes not.

See, it wasn’t just four months of wasted time; it was research.

Arc after arc, raise after raise

The structure of GW2 is a classic zero-to-hero tale, but one that’s remarkably coherent and well-structured. The core storyline is broken in regular chapters, each of which reaches a natural end point that segues neatly into the next arc, and each of which raises the overall stakes. You start off as just another adventurer, fighting bandits or in a rivalry with mad scientists, and by the end you’re spearheading the battle against the great dragons and their unending army of the undead in order to save the world. And that progression is largely smooth and unbroken; you can always look back and think that it makes sense that you wound up where you are. The pattern of establish a status quo / upend it / fix it / establish a new status quo where the stakes are higher / repeat is the meat and drink of storytelling; it’s always worth considering as your main course.

But keep those doggies moving 

The thing about that arc-to-arc movement is that it doesn’t give you much room to breathe between arcs, or else you lose momentum and don’t make the transition smoothly. Time elapsing in the narrative is fine; time elapsing for the audience is problematic. GW2 does the usual keying of  events to levels and places, and most of the time you gain the requisite experience for the next mission in the process of getting to the location – but not always. A number of times I found myself coming up short and needing to potter around someplace else to gain a level or two, which bled away a lot of the urgency of the storyline.  In your storytelling, don’t give characters unnecessary downtime between arcs – if time has to pass, it’s better to start the next chapter with ‘Six months later’ than to blow a whole chapter describing how nothing important happens for a while.

Character is at the heart of story

It doesn’t matter how rich the backstory and environment of your world is if there’s no-one for us to experience it through. GW2 does a great job of basing everything that happens around your character and their actions. All the plot-important events are instanced, so you don’t see all the other players doing exactly the same mission, and fully-voiced cutscenes bookend each event so that your character is actually interacting with NPCs and shaping the narrative rather than just being given a checklist of objectives. Over the course of 80 levels, I became not just invested in my character’s XP and bitchin’ armour choices but in his personality – a great achievement for an MMO, and the primary thing you want to achieve in your fiction. Do it the same way – build the story around your character and then let personality emerge from action and dialogue.

But your POV might be from the story’s kidney

GW2 positions your character as central, but not as the primary plot-driver; that role is taken up by various characters in the story arcs, with you as their lieutenant/assistant/main legbreaker. Doing so is understandable – you need NPCs to give you missions to drive play – but it still ends up with you being secondary in someone else’s stories. While it’s possible to make this work in a story (such as in the first few of Glen Cook’s Black Company novels), it’s more likely to leave readers feeling that they’re missing out on the story or reading about a less-interesting character. So if you’re going to place your main character outside the absolute centre of your story, make sure that their own story is at least as interesting that what’s going on front and centre.

Situations create narrative

GW2 largely eschews the traditional quest-journal approach of most MMOs in favour of a network of events that are married to locations and situations. Some are static; you enter an area and there are problems that are immediate and obvious (eel-men preying on wrecked ships, unexploded bombs in an orchard, uppity polar bears etc); just by wandering around and interacting with the environment you complete the event. Others are dynamic, suddenly starting up and bringing change into the scene – and some of those are links in a chain of events that change with consequences. If bandits attack a water pipe, you can try to fight them off; if you fail, the pipe is blown up and now you have to help repair it. This gives everything a feeling of import and weight; the world changes with you, even if only for a little while, and other players will be affected by your deeds. This is the kind of feeling you want to impart to events in your fiction. The best stories are not  just handed down from on high; they emerge naturally from reactions to a situation, they shape the actions of characters and are shaped in turn, and the consequences that follow the event meaningfully changes the narrative.

Sometimes that narrative is a bit dull

When a situation calls for a variety of actions – combat, puzzle solving, interaction, chopping down trees or whatever – then it’s engaging on several levels. When it just involves attacking an indeterminate number of monsters using the same two weapons for ten minutes… not so much. GW2’s static and dynamic events are a mix of the inspired (especially when you end up putting on disguises and changing form), the serviceable and the just-hit-enough-things-until-it’s-over, which is as quotidian as it gets for a video game. Over in the writing world, you should probably try to avoid the quotidian, because those are situations that don’t have tension, conflict or emotional resonance, and the narratives and consequences that emerge from them just aren’t interesting. Of course, ‘quotidian’ isn’t the same as ‘ordinary’; lots of normal human interactions are charged with conflict and meaning, and can give rise to powerful stories. But situations that only allow for limited character actions, that don’t matter in the overall storyline, that don’t present more than cosmetic consequences… it doesn’t matter if your story’s set in Melbourne, Metropolis or Moria, that bit of it’s going to be dull. Skip it.

Okay, we’re well over 1000 words at this stage, this post is two days late and I’m only half-finished, so I’m breaking this in half. Come back next weekend for part two, which will be at least as exciting and educational as this one.

Plus I’ll add some screenshots of my character. He looks boss.

Categories
games superheroes

Roll to hit Galactus in the purple helmet

I am a superhero nerd, as you all know.

I am a roleplaying nerd, as you probably all know, and if you don’t then I’m sorry to spring it on you so suddenly like this.

And I have explored the overlapping part of that Venn nerdagram for many years (oh Christ, it’s like decades), playing many a superhero RPG. If you meet me in a bar and get me really drunk, I may entertain you with stories of the Champions game I ran in the early 90s and how it drove me to hard drugs and despair. And I’ve played, run and read many more, from Aberrant to (erk) Super Squadron and everything in between.

Which brings us to the topic of tonight’s post, one that will interest only a few of you readers, certainly more than the wordcount can justify – the new Marvel Heroic RPG from Margaret Weis Publishing, which is kind of terrific and also a very interesting barometer of changing narrative styles in commercial superhero comics.

No need to explain the premise – you play Marvel superheroes and you fight Marvel supervillains in the Marvel Universe. I think we’re all clear on that. Dig into the system and you find a very interesting beast – a narrative game with little granularity that’s nonetheless got plenty of room for tactical play. It aims to emulate the flow and feel of comics, rather than provide any kind of ‘physics engine’; characters are defined very loosely and abstractly but with easily understood traits and significant customisability. A lot of gameplay hinges on directly engaging with the dice – adding more of them, making them better, spreading them among different targets and setting them up for future rolls. It’s all pretty abstract, which isn’t a problem if the players maintain a strong connection to the fiction and don’t start thinking about the dice first – but there’s nothing baked into the rules to help with that. On the other hand, manipulating dice pools is fun, both on a mechanical level and in terms of narrative and character.

But look, enough about the system; I could talk about that longer but I risk driving all y’all away to one of those more popular blogs. If you want to learn more about it, check some of the reviews online or download some of the free demo files. Go on, it’s fun. Let’s talk instead about the way it structures play to fit Marvel’s narrative style, specifically modern Marvel comics. Because those are different beasts to what we were reading when Villains & Vigilantes came out.

A key element is how strongly the game is married to its source license. You almost always play existing Marvel characters, rather than home-grown heroes, and you fight bad guys in customised versions of major Marvel storylines. The game allows for your own characters and plots, of course, but all the support is aimed at using Marvel properties, and any kind of tools to change that (like a character creation system, rather than just eyeballing things) come second or third if at all.

One underlying message is that to be a superhero fan is to be a Marvel fan, and to bolster identification with the company’s output. But the second core message is that the individual characters aren’t as important as the Marvel Universe itself. Players are encouraged to swap characters between stories, acts or even scenes, and the material often places more emphasis on locations and plot events than the characters in them. It’s the Marvel Universe that is the star of the game, with the players experiencing it through the lens of their characters, rather than the other way around.

And that strongly matches the modern MU, where big crossover storylines have become not just annual events but tools for major changes in direction, where some books exist just as ‘continuity porn’ to summarise and communicate those changes, and where readers discard comics because they’re seen as ‘not important’ in the lead-up to the next big event. Developing the setting is often (not entirely, sure, but often) more important editorially than developing characters and their personal stories, and Marvel MHR reflects this.

It also reflects it in its campaign model, which is based on existing storylines – Events, in game parlance. Rather than create their own stories, all the support is for exploring a major Marvel event (Civil War, Annihilation and Age of Apocalypse are the ones on the schedule). The material explores the Event through largely discrete scenes, nearly all of them based on specific comics from those crossovers. (And in the case of the Civil War supplement, making them into a better story than the actual comics.)

This is a huge departure from the traditional campaign models of pretty much every superhero RPG, or indeed every gaming group, which have been solidly emulating Claremont’s X-Men for something like 30 years – a broth of long-term plots, multi-session plots and character-focused subplots that move in and out of focus as part of an indefinitely-ongoing game with a high degree of player-PC identification and the GM solidly in the driver’s seat. Once again the focus is on the setting rather than specific heroes, and the play of events that are bigger than they are (one of the things that tends to distinguish from DC, where heroes are often bigger than events). The subtext is that exploring the setting and the Event is where the fun is, for both GM and players, rather than tying yourself to a single character or coming up with your own story scenes.

You can also see this in the presentation of NPCs; most get a paragraph of definition/description next to their rules, rather than the full-page write-ups that tend to be the norm in something like Mutants & Masterminds. The assumption is that you probably know who they are already, but it’s also that these characters aren’t meant to be used by GMs to create stories around them; instead, they’re tools to be slotted into the pre-developed event. They’re not interchangeable – the GM’s choices will matter – but the emphasis remains on bringing the Event to life, rather than creating original storylines.

In case any of this seems overly negative, I want to say that it’s not – I really like the game and I think the change in narrative emphasis makes for fun play. There’s real attraction in saying ‘I want to be Wolverine and I want to fight Apocalypse!’, rather than just approximating those characters and stories. But it’s a big change from the gameplay that older RPGs encourage, and I think the key is that superhero stories have changed, and that the interests and expectations of superhero readers have changed – and Marvel MHR is the first RPG to change in accordance with that.

So anyway, it’s another overly long post that many readers will have skipped. If you made it to the end, take comfort in that I edited out a good 500 more words talking about specific systems and sourcebooks. And give Marvel MHR a whirl – it’s really engaging, well-produced and has an interesting stance on what elements matter in the superhero genre.

I bags playing Iron Fist. Or Daredevil. Or Iron Fist as Daredevil COME ON IT’S TOTALLY IN CONTINUITY

Categories
character games story superheroes writing

Arkham City – the writing dos and donts

I don’t think anyone will be terribly surprised to hear that I spent most of the last two weeks playing Arkham City, rather than Christmas shopping, writing or spending quality time with my wife. I mean, come on, it’s a video game about Batman; the only way to make that more attractive to me as a package is have it dispense a shot of bourbon from the controller every time you get an achievement.

But as of yesterday I have finished the game (both the core plotline and the host of side missions) and having done so I think there’s a lot to consider from a writing POV about the way the game handles its stories and characters. Arkham City does some things right and some things wrong – more the latter than the former, to be honest – and a lot of that is pretty directly applicable to writing fiction. So let’s step away from the fact that the game is a lot of fun and features my favourite character and see what else we can learn from it.

(No, this isn’t a transparent attempt to justify the hours I’ve spent beating the crap out of bad guys on the TV. Honest. Cross my heart.)

Also, warning: if you haven’t finished the game yet, there’ll be some spoilers here. They might ruin your enjoyment. Or they might not.

Plot from premise

For a start, let’s talk about plot. Although promoted as being sandboxy and ‘open-world’, AC has in fact a very central plotline. More specifically, it has two central plotlines. First up, Hugo Strange has turned half of Gotham City into a giant prison, full of psychopaths and lowlifes, and Batman has to find out what Strange is really up to. On top of that, the Joker has infected Batman and a lot of hospital blood supplies with a deadly disease, so Batman has to determine and find the cure before he (and hundreds of others) die.

This is classic stuff – you have an A-plot and a B-plot, you move the spotlight between the two as the story progresses, and you use developments in one to modify the other. It’s very much the approach I’m taking with The Obituarist, for example. By having two main plotlines, you can build tension in one and then move to the other to maintain suspense, or pull the trigger in one to ramp things up in the other. Having just one core plotline in a long-form work doesn’t give you the same richness or as many tools, and you run the risk of pushing that plot too hard and boring your readers.

In addition, AC has about a dozen side plots and missions, plus a parallel storyline about Catwoman. Most of these link strongly to the strong central premise of the game – Gotham City is now a prison that causes far more problems than it solves. As I’ve said before, a strong premise is a constant story generator; you can bring an simple idea to it, put it through the premise/machine and some kind of plotline will come out. Video games tend to be premise-driven, of course, but AC‘s a good (not exceptional, but good) example of how it can work.

Bait, switch, drive a truck through the holes

But while AC has a central plot, that’s not to say it’s a strong plot. Or a coherent one. Or one that makes a goddamn lick of sense in some cases.

So yes, Hugo Strange is doing something bad. But you spend most of the game ignoring that, despite the fact that it’s the A-plot that’s central to the premise and plastered all over the blurb of the CD case. Instead, the Joker-infection plot takes over the core of the game and drives it forward, forcing you to ignore the increasing urgency of prison developments while you look for a cure. Which requires you to fight ninjas in an abandoned subterranean steampunk cult temple.

…yup.

You’ll go on a vision quest. You’ll punch a giant shark and a pair of one-armed former Siamese twins. Solomon Grundy throws electrified balls at your head. And a bunch of other stuff that floats in and out of the story for no really comprehensible reason. Finally you’ll get a cure, only for it to be stolen and the Joker to target Batman. At which point the A-plot comes back and Strange gets the legal right to kill everyone in the prison (!), and you rush to stop him while the Joker allies with the ninjas. Except that’s all bait-and-switch too, and brings with it a couple of plot holes that left me staring slackjawed at the TV, wondering how no-one on the writing team stopped and said ‘wait, correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s just fucking stupid’.

The main reason why these plot turns and events are problematic (apart from the huge holes) is that they’re divorced from the central premise discussed above. Playing a shellgame with plotlines can be interesting if done well, but are frustrating when bungled, and when your story wanders too far afield from the concept that got the reader interested in the first place. Similarly, while some side plots emerge fairly naturally from the central plotline and core premise, others come out of nowhere and feel completely tacked on (especially the one involving Azrael, which is either utterly pointless or an extended teaser for the next game in the series). Fun in and of themselves, their stories don’t satisfy, just as a disconnected subplot in a novel leaves the reader feeling distanced from the main story because of the apparently-pointless detour.

Oh, and the game finishes before you get a chance to cure the hundreds of infected patients in wider Gotham. Apparently there’s a post-credit epilogue that deals with that. But here’s a free tip for writers – if 80% of your novel has focused on a race towards a vital goal that must be achieved, forgetting about it and leaving it to be resolved off-screen and mentioned after the novel wraps up is bad fucking writing.

Rising tension

The advancement model of most video games is well-established by now, and AC does not do anything all that different. You start off fighting small groups of weak opponents, mooks and thugs who do their best to fuck you up but fail because you put your boot through their faces. You fight a few more groups, encounter a boss who has to be fought using different tactics, gain a new gadget or skill, and after a scene advancing the plot you’re back on the streets – except now the groups of thugs are a little bigger, a little tougher and using new weapons/tactics that you have to adapt to with your new powerups.

This is so far from radical it’s practically voting for Malcolm Fraser, but AC does it very well indeed. As the inmates form into massive gangs and get access to guns, shields, body armour and other toys, you never get the chance to feel complacent, even though you’ve also gained new advantages. There’s a constant pressure there to counterbalance but not negate your sense of achievement and to push you to do better, to give you the feeling that the stakes are continually rising.

As in games, so too in prose. This kind of rise / plateau / fall back to a slightly-elevated status quo / rise again pattern occurs over and over again in novels, and that’s because it works. It’s a slow dance of action, consequence, elevated stakes and into action again that gives a story an engaging pace and a reason to keep reading, if only to find out how the protagonist deals with this new turn of events. And it works for both action-packed page-turners and more introspective works; the raised stakes may be bruised emotions rather than 20 dudes with knives and tasers trying to slice your nipples off, but it’s an elevation nonetheless.

Too many c(r)ooks

The premise of AC gives a lot of room for including distinctive characters, as does Batman’s massive rogue’s gallery, almost all of whom have enough depth and history to be a convincing central threat as a core antagonist. What we get instead is a lumpy mishmash of unclear roles and pointless cameos, where characters that deserve substantial development time instead get five minutes of focus before tagging in a replacement to handle the next blip of plot. Within the main plotlines alone there’s a confusing blur of characters, from Mister Freeze to Two-Face to R’as al-Ghul to the Penguin, and they fall over each other in the race to take centre stage and justify their existence.

The side quests are even more rife with these additional characters, such as Mr Zsasz, Mad Hatter, the aforementioned Azrael and (sigh) Hush. In addition, riddles and clues about the whereabouts of more villains are all through the game, in such volume that they become overwhelming. When you find Calendar Man, of all people, sitting talking to himself in a glass-walled cell under a building, not contributing anything to any plotline in any way, it doesn’t make you feel that you’re glimpsing a wider world, it makes you feel like DC is throwing every bit of their IP against the wall in the hope you’ll go on to buy the action figures. Or inaction figure, in this case.

More is not always better, and a massive dramatis personae doesn’t automatically make your setting feel vast and varied; if you stick them all into your story at once, it makes it feel cramped and cluttered. It’s better to use a small number of characters and give them multiple story roles, so that they have recurring reasons to take focus, undergo development and then organically move that focus to another character with an overlapping remit.

Also, don’t put characters behind glass. They might suffocate.

The perfect antagonist

But for all that there are too many characters, there’s one that stands out above all the others as an incredibly engaging and fascinating opponent.

No, not the Joker or Two-Face, and certainly not the barely sketched Hugo Strange. No, it’s the Riddler. Who can kiss my entire arse.

The Riddler’s shtick is that he’s littered Gotham with riddles and trophies, which you obtain by solving puzzles, some of which are simple, some of which are just goddamn bullshit. You could ignore them, but he has hostages, and to free them you need to solve the puzzles, unlocking the locations of deathtraps as you go. And all the while he’s alternately mocking you for your stupidity and accusing you of cheating when you work out the combination of tricks and gadgets required to save a hostage.

It took me a week to finish the core plot. I spent the second week collecting trophies and solving ridiculously complicated puzzles because it was personal – because everything about this plotline was the Riddler saying that I, the player, was not smart enough to figure out his shit. So when I finally found him, pulled him through a set of weak floorboards and punched the question marks off of his hat, the triumph wasn’t just Batman’s, it was mine.

Now, as a writer, you can’t make the reader solve puzzles to turn the page – not unless you’re doing some very interestingly ergodic sort of stuff – but you can target the reader directly through a character’s portrayal and development. If you can make the reader take a character’s actions personally, whether thanks to identification with the protagonist or pushing emotional buttons directly (which is tricky, but kudos if you can pull it off), you give the reader a big reason to care what happens next. Don’t just leave them wanting the protagonist to succeed – leave them wanting the antagonist to fail. Do that and they’re yours.

Action is character

I’ve harped on this in the past, and I’ll probably harp on it again in the future, but action – stuff actually happening, onstage, front and centre – engages the reader and defines character far more than description. And like most video games, AC is action-adventure focused, and you’re constantly doing stuff. Well, more precisely, Batman is constantly doing stuff, and that’s a meaningful distinction. You’re more like a director than an actor or author in this game, guiding and making decisions for Batman rather than micromanaging him. He knows what he’s doing, and his actions show it – he fights hard, he always knows what gadget to pull out, he moves confidently from hiding place to hiding place, pausing only to silently smother a goon or electrify Mister Freeze’s armour. And outside the fights, it’s action – confrontation with villains, working out puzzles, infiltrating hideouts – that advances the story (albeit unevenly at times). There are cut scenes and conversations, yes, but those are still focused around conflicts and the actions required to resolve them.

The upshot of this is that the story never stalls, because there’s always something happening – even if, yes, that story and those actions don’t always make sense or connect properly. And because of this, we never have to be told that Batman is a man of action, that he’s prepared to do whatever it takes, that he thinks on his feet and refuses to lay down even when weakened near to death by the Joker’s disease – because we see him doing those things, and because we help and guide him as he does those things. There are dozens of backstory snippets that you can collect as the game goes along, but you lose nothing by ignoring them, because the story and character development doesn’t take place there – it takes place in the now, in the action, and in the immediacy of the moment. Just as it does in a novel.

Action is character, even when you don’t want it to be

The flip side to the above, of course, is that when a character says one thing and does another, it’s the action that presents the character to the reader.

And what AC presents is a Batman that talks a lot about never killing and doing the right thing (he even makes a little speech about it at one point), but his actions say something else. No, he never kills anyone, but he’s fine with letting people die through inaction. The game is rife with instances where you stand by and let the body count rise because you’re too concerned with other priorities. For example, a plotline with Deadshot has Batman waiting for the assassin to pick off targets so that he can pick up clues afterwards, rather than working from day one to prevent the killings. And that’s not even touching on the ending, where Batman slowly and reluctantly gets himself organised while Strange’s men deliberately massacre a third of the inmates, or where he carefully knocks out and incapacitates half-a-dozen armed gunman and leaves them littered around Strange’s HQ, only to abandon them to die when the joint explodes. These actions reveal him as either callous or incompetent, no matter his stated plans and sensibilities.

Ditto the thuggishness of his brutal interrogation of captured henchmen – bad guys or no, you can’t help but feel a moment of sympathy for them when Batman first terrifies them and then smashes their heads into brick walls or drops them off ledges once they spill the beans. I get that Rocksteady’s vision of Batman is darker and grimier than the traditional DC version – although it’s a pretty good fit for the less-well-written depictions in the new DC continuity that’s deliberately targeting the age-18-35-male demographic – but they’re still trying to describe the character as heroic within the game, and his actions belie that, leaving their protagonist more like an easily-distracted bully.

As I’ve said before, actions speak louder than words, especially in prose – which is weird, given that it’s all words, but you know what I mean. It’s all show not tell once again, and if you show your character doing the opposite of what you tell the audience he’s doing, they’ll think he’s a hypocrite and that you’re confused about your work. Make sure it all lines up, and remember that what happens on the page is what the reader will take in above all else.

See, folks, that’s all it takes to get me to write 2500+ words – Batman. If only he popped up in Arcadia I’d have finished the book months ago.

Next week, some flash fiction (plus visual stimulus!) for your Christmas reading. Just the thing for warming your heart after you have your pudding.