Categories
character games media superheroes

Batman vs. Ted Lasso

We’re three months into the latest pandemic lockdown, which has been a bad time to do anything creative but a good time to engage with media.

This weekend I finished two such pieces of media – the second season of Ted Lasso and the Telltale Batman video game. And weirdly, I think they have something in common.

I’ll dig into that in a moment, but first, SPOILER WARNING! This post will contain spoilers for a TV show that came out like three days ago, and a video game that came out in 2016. Continue at your own risk – and find out which is better!

(Here’s the first SPOILER – it’s Ted Lasso, that show’s brilliant, the Batman game is pretty ordinary.)

Choose your fighter

Who is the Batman: Batman: The Telltale Series (aka BTTS) is a 2016 video game from, unsurprisingly, Telltale Games, a studio known for their branching-narrative games/visual novels. You get to investigate crime scenes, bang Catwoman, fight Two-Face/sexy Penguin and slowly realise that most of your choices don’t have any effect on the story.

Who is the Ted Lasso: Ted Lasso is – are we doing this? really? ugh fine – a 2020/2021 show on Apple TV+ about an American football coach working with a British soccer team. It’s really fuckin’ good, y’all: a show about hope & positivity that is also about the cost of hope & positivity, and is far smarter than any of us expected in these dark times.

What they have in common

Well, first of all, they’re both stories set in action-oriented genres (sports/superheroics) that preference character interaction scenes over expensive/hard-to-animate action scenes.

That aside, the main thing they have in common is plot. Or, more accurately, how they use plot in relation to character. Both Ted Lasso and BTTS rely largely on external plots, with character scenes triggered by plot beats, and okay let’s unpack these concepts.

punchy quote, shitty haircut

There’s an old maxim, ‘plot is character’, which generally means that plot is what emerges from the actions and decisions of characters, and is usually stated by someone tedious in your first-year writing class.

In many stories, though, plot is external and acts upon characters – the story throws up events and characters respond to them. (This is most common in genre fiction, but you see it in other spaces too.) A lot of folks refer to these events and moments as plot or character beats, and while I think that language is overused, ‘beats’ feel appropriate for this approach to plot, like pounding on a drum to mark the next thing happening to the characters, rather than because of the characters.

Meaty beaty big and bouncy (I’m sorry)

In a story primarily based around an external plot, plot beats provide opportunities for character interaction, with two major functions:

  • catalysts for character change
  • catalysts for character reinforcement.

In a change beat, characters react in ways that, well, change them and redirect their course for the next phase of the story. Reinforcement beats are opportunities for characters (or rather writers) to restate their identity, creating conflicts and causing drama.

Reinforcement beats are particularly common in genre fiction, especially serial fiction (comics, soap operas, cinematic universes etc) where characters need to experience events and overcome conflicts without being so changed by them that they can’t be used in the next instalment/episode/issue.

no Batman, that’s not what I meant by ‘beat’

Tell a Bat-Tale

BTTS is primarily based in reinforcement beats, which is unsurprising for a genre story but nonetheless disappointing. The game sells itself as an interactive story guided by player choices, but ultimately you’re responding to plot events to enforce your own take on how Batman should act and how he should feel.

Does it have character beats? Yes, but they’re badly handled. Characters change, but that change often doesn’t feel earned or genuine. Fail to protect Harvey Dent and he becomes the psychotic, maimed villain Two-Face – but if you do protect him, he becomes a psychotic non-maimed villain that does the exact same thing. Catwoman will always leave you, Alfred will always be saved, and while your choices may mean they say different things, their words don’t change the story.

Also, the action scenes are pretty dull.

BELIEVE

The big risk (and big achievement) of Ted Lasso is that the second season is overwhelmingly composed of character beats, with little time spent on reinforcement beats or even on maintaining a continuous plot. Rather than being used as a ‘story engine’ (another term popular in writing classes), events come and go without many situational repercussions, but they kickstart character growth and development.

Take the thread involving the soccer club’s sponsorship. When Sam questions the ethics of the club’s sponsor, they pull out, and this leads to… a new sponsor already in place by the next episode. This show doesn’t care about the drama that might emerge from the search for a new sponsor, or dealing with financial struggles – it cares about Rebecca realising she deserves happiness, Sam finding the confidence to forge his own path, and the two of them shagging like rabbits after hooking up on the dating app that now sponsors the club.

Or consider the Roy-vs-Jamie conflict that powered a lot of Season 1. It would have been easy to draw that conflict into Season 2, but it fades away largely offscreen, replaced by Jamie and Roy learning to show emotional vulnerability and to support others. Wholesome, yes, but also an arc that focuses hard on how and why characters change, rather than the circumstances foregrounding that change.

Also, I got very emotional when they hugged. Ain’t gonna lie.

Who wore it better?

Stories that rely on internal plot, that rise from characters’ action, attract labels like ‘organic’ or ‘authentic’. Stories that rely on external plot, on the other hand, are often criticised as shallow, with beats that just exist to move characters from situation to situation.

Here’s the thing – it doesn’t matter if you do it well. Moving characters into position is just fine in a story, so long as the characters change and grow in interesting and engaging ways in the process. Character conflict helps with that, but it’s not essential.

Both Ted Lasso and BTTS promise character change, but one does it well, in ways that feel genuine, and one only delivers the illusion of change. It’s a shame, ‘cos all of you know how much I like Batman, but the lesson here is to be like the Moustache, not like the Bat.

Plus, only Ted Lasso gave us ‘Beard After Hours’, and that episode was a goddamn cinematic masterpiece.

Brendan Hunt's 'Ted Lasso' Performance in Season 2 Episode 9 | TVLine

I can’t wait to see how all of this pans out in Season 3 – and ugh, fine, I guess I’ll play the BTTS sequel, I hear it’s better.

See you folks another time.

Categories
character legacy wrestling writing

Gimmick talk, round two

Hmm.

Turns out I’m not done talking about gimmicks.

Let’s start with mine.

a work in very slow progress

My Pokemans, let me show you them

Here’s the table I showed off last time, with all of the characters/gimmicks I’ve brainstormed (and stuck on corkboards) for my YA wrestling novel-in-not-really-progress-yet Piledriver.

FACESHEELS
Hardcore veteran at age 18Management’s golden boy
Action bishonenEdgelord ‘Sliding into your DMs’
Internet TikTok daredevilOne true master of submission holds
Guardian of the maskPasifika wrestling royalty
Basketball MVPVideo essay guy
K-pop star stanSk8r boi
Brooklyn toughThe Smiling Assassin
Real freakin’ strongNasty Freaky goth
Trash pandaTrophy collector
‘Fire in the belly’Mean girl
Frenzied fighter‘Big cash money’
Cool nerdEurotrash

Just as the novel is in the germination stages, so are these gimmicks (hell, none of these characters have names yet). As you can see from the strikethroughs, my ideas are still in flux and getting updated daily weekly sporadically. Gimmicks are surface-level concepts but they can nonetheless be surprisingly nuanced, and you can tinker with them for ages before getting them right.

In fact, I think some roughness here makes sense for the novel, which focuses (in part) on the creation and launch of a new, all-teenagers wrestling promotion. Ideas are going to be rough at the start, and there’s good story material in showing the development, refinement, testing and rejection of gimmicks in the early days.

That said, these are all good gimmicks, and I can tell you why. Because I am the King of Gimmicks.

…okay fine, I’m the Prince of Gimmicks, are you happy now

What makes a good gimmick?

An effective gimmick should be…

Easy to summarise, hard to explain: What is a ‘video essay guy’ or a ‘trash panda’ – or, to pick a real wrestler, Mr Perfect? I could tell you in detail but I don’t have to; you already (I hope) have an image in your mind. A gimmick is all high concept, a phrase that unpacks itself in the audience’s imagination; it’s only later, once the hooks are in, that it needs to be fleshed out and coloured in.

Triple H was ‘The Cerebral Assassin’, which he expressed by hitting people very awkwardly with a sledgehammer

Able to hold your attention: But you do need to get those hooks in, and that means holding the audience’s attention. A character is called ‘The Smiling Assassin’ – why? Does he smile (yes)? Does he murder people (no)? How does his ‘sneering killer’ concept flavour his fighting, his promos, his backstage scenes? If a gimmick is just a name or a look, it’s not going to keep audiences interested; it has to have some substance and nuance to inform what happens next.

Adaptable and extendable: Some gimmicks are face gimmicks, some are heel gimmicks, but the best can be pointed in either direction. Similarly, a strong gimmick can morph over time, add to itself, even contradict itself and still remain identifiable. Looking to WWE, Kane and Sean Michaels (‘The Heartbreak Kid’) were a dozen different things over the decades, but were still definitely the same characters and concepts each time. Flexible gimmicks like ‘Guardian of the Mask’ or ‘Pasifika wrestling royalty’ could have the same adaptability and longevity (unless romance and drama get in the way, which they will).

3/16 is also my birthday
I should probably get this as a T-shirt

Expressed in multiple ways: A great gimmick is more than a look, a concept, a finishing move. It’s a catchphrase, an attitude, a vignette, an ethos; it’s something that can be packaged a dozen different ways, all of them available from the merch table. Maybe no-one defines this better than Stone Cold Steve Austin, who turned a ‘tough guy who hates his boss’ gimmick into a dozen catchphrases, a million T-shirts, a presence in pop culture strong enough that someone who’s never seen a moment of wrestling might still understand and enjoy a 3:16 reference.

everything about her is perfect

Deadpan: The Undertaker is a zombie. Kairi Sane is a wrestling pirate. Half the roster of Chikara were various types of humanoid ants. The key to making ideas like that pop is to take them… not seriously, perhaps, but at face value, rather than deconstructing or questioning them. Because when you undercut one wrestling concept, you undercut the very notion that it’s real or a sport or that it makes sense to settle personal disputes by suplexing someone through a table rather than talking to a small claims lawyer. Treat your gimmicks with respect and never wink at the camera – not openly, anyway.

Okay, that’s a lot of talk about gimmicks and how to craft them.

It’s time I knuckle down on applying my own advice to my character roster, fill out these index cards, finish the outline and start writing this book.

…unless I get distracted by a new puppy. But that would never –

PUPPY ENTRANCE MUSIC HITS

MAH GOD!

Categories
character legacy wrestling writing

Ya gotta have a gimmick

‘Gimmick’.

It feels a bit grubby just to type the word. Gimmicks are cheap, nasty things – foil covers and decoder rings and celebrity endorsements, things of that nature, I think we can all agree.

Don’t take my word for it – let’s see what the Collins Online Dictionary (which I’ve chosen because I’m not giving my home email to Oxford or Macquarie just for one bloody screenshot) has to say:

Hmm.

This is an interesting definition, because it’s loaded with this weird, classist subtext. How dreadful it would be to attract attention to something! What an unnecessary thing to do, when you could simply win the approval of your peers by working quietly on your dictionary for two hours a day from the comfort of your family’s estate before snooker with the chaps from the fox hunting lodge.

Am I reading too much into this? Almost certainly, but I don’t see why that should stop me. Because I come not to praise the definition but to bury it. Folks, here’s the skinny, the straight dope, the 411, the truth that Mr/Ms/Mx/Viscount Collins can’t handle:

Gimmicks are good, actually.

Especially when creating fictional characters.

The Disney silhouette

Team Collins makes one solid point – a gimmick is a feature designed to attract attention. As fiction writers/creators, we crave attention like a Coalition politician craves government funds illegitimately rorted from community programs. I don’t mean for ourselves (although hello yes here I am notice me love me validate me) but for our books, games, shows, Bayeux Tapestries etc. – and even more importantly, for the characters within those stories and give them life.

Animators understand this, which is why Disney animated characters always have distinctive visual designs, not just in terms of colour but shape and the silhouette that that shape creates. A unique and flavourful character silhouette ‘allows a designer to produce striking iconic shapes that will stand out among multiple characters or creatures.’ It’s an unusual feature that attracts attention, as Collins et al disapprovingly explained earlier.

Five distinct shapes, five distinct character gimmicks – Fighter, Thug, Party Pirate, Ol’ Surly Bastard and Racist Stereotype

The silhouette principle is just as important in text. If your characters don’t have an immediate point of distinction from everyone around them, if they don’t have a unique conceptual hook to catch readers’ attention – a gimmick – then most readers will move on and never discover the complex character depths you struggled to write.

Yes, gimmicks are surface elements, but you don’t get to have depths without surfaces to hold them together and squish them down. That’s just science.

Only wrestling is real

Why am I bringing this concept up right now, and being so weirdly insistent and borderline preachy about it? Because I’m writing a novel set within the world of professional wrestling, the King of Sports, and wrestling has always acknowledged the power of the gimmick – the immediate conceptual hook that makes the audience think, ‘yeah, I wanna watch this guy/girl fight someone’.

Which is not to say that every gimmick is good or effective – a cursory review of wrestling history reveals a lot of bad creative decisions. In the ’80s, everyone was defined by their job (Isaac Yankem, wrestling dentist), an ethnic stereotype (The Iron Sheik) or just some fuckin’ bullshit (the Gobbledy Gooker, obviously). But still, I think that was better than the ’90s, when most wrestlers were just variations on ‘edgy dude in jorts’ and the few exceptions got over simply through a sense of relief.

Any discussion of bad gimmicks is legally required to include mention of the Gobbledy Gooker – but damnit, this is Héctor Guerrero, show some respect

This is the difficult aspect of gimmicks – you need them to attract attention, but it needs to be the right kind of attention. They can be funny, they can attract a little ridicule, but they still need to get folks watching matches and appreciating the performer inside the gimmick, rather than driving folks away.

So with that in mind, here are the gimmicks I’ve developed for the 24 teenage wrestlers on the roster for Piledriver.

FACESHEELS
Hardcore veteran at age 18Management’s golden boy
Action bishonenEdgelord
Internet daredevilTrue master of submission holds
Guardian of the maskPasifika wrestling royalty
Basketball MVPVideo essay guy
K-pop star stanSk8r boi
Brooklyn toughThe Smiling Assassin
Real freakin’ strongNasty goth
Trash pandaTrophy collector
Fire in the bellyMean girl
Frenzied fighter‘Big Cash Money’
Cool nerdEurotrash

Bit of a mixed bag, I know – almost as if significant thought went into some of them, while others are tissue-thin nonsense based primarily on early morning free association and whim.

What can I say? I have my methods, and for this book, my methods involve writing down ideas as I get them and then fleshing them out down the track, rather than spending months fussing over each individual concept until it’s perfect and no-one cares any more. Plus, I have the advantage of these being in-fiction concepts – if some are weak, then characters can address and improve them as part of the story, when they’re not fighting monsters or making out with their co-workers.

(Also, go to hell, ‘video essay guy’ is a brilliant gimmick.)

Your turn

Not all of us are writing stories about professional wrestlers – which is probably for the best, ‘cos I want to sell this book – but almost every work of genre fiction can benefit from the writer thinking about distinct, engaging hooks for their characters.

(It’s not as big a deal outside of genre fiction; I don’t think readers are attracted to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich for his distinctive character silhouette.)

You can call it something else if you want – high concept, character premise, archetype – but a gimmick is what it is, and it’s something readers need and enjoy. Accept it. Embrace it. Live it.

I’ve got mine – well, I’ve got them for the in-ring personas, but I still need to work them out for the actual characters. What are yours? How would you sum up your main character’s whole deal in one easy-to-digest phrase? And how long could they last against the Gobbledy Gooker?

Let’s talk more about this next month. I still have opinions.

Categories
character legacy

Fifty and fighty

All right, first things first.

I turned 50 years old today.

I think I’m finally letting go of my hopes of being a child prodigy.

But I’m still here, still giving it a go, and that’ll do.

That’ll do.

So what am I doing in my fifty-first year?

For one thing, I’m still trying to learn new tricks, even when it comes to writing. I’m in the prep-and-research phase of a new novel project, and I’m doing something I’ve never done before – planning.

…okay, I haven’t actually planned the book’s title yet, but let’s called it Piledriver as a shorthand for now.

Raven’s Blood and the Obituarist novellas were all written the same way – I sat down with a premise, an opening scene, a finale to aim towards and some ideas for bits in the middle, and then haphazardly wrote my way into the story until I got to the end, which may or may not have resembled the ending I’d originally envisioned. I’m not going to abandon that approach, ‘cos it aligns nicely with my laziness creative instincts, but it’s high time I gave the whole plotting and outlining business a try.

But first, characters. Piledriver has an ensemble cast of, mighty fuck, twenty-four characters, all of whom need to be unique and clearly distinct from the others. How am I going to manage this Herculean task and (frankly, stupidly over-large) cast?

With a character stack.

The stack contains 24 index cards, each showing the core information of a specific character. Let’s zoom in on the most complete one, which is for the book/series’ main protagonist.

The important points you can immediately tell:

  • this is a book about professional wrestlers
  • yes, I’ve named the main character Jack Fetch
  • yes, he’s Jack the Giantkiller, wrestling is not a world of subtlety
  • my handwriting is fucking atrocious
  • I haven’t worked out some of the details yet

(Why is there a B in the top right corner? I’m gonna keep that detail under wraps for the moment.)

Other cards are sketchier still – no-one else has a name yet, and things like gimmicks, style and persona are mostly vacant. But the joy of the stack is that I can just grab a card and fill in a detail when it occurs to me. Some of those will get nailed down during the outlining, others as I write, and this will help me keep things consistent. Another positive of using physical cards is that I can also pin them to a corkboard to map out relationships, group them into factions, spot who needs some screen time and (eventually) array them for a big ol’ tournament.

I might have so much fun doing that that I don’t bother writing the book. We’ll see.

Anyway, that’s how I’m kicking things off in my life as an Official Old Dude. Check back in occasionally over the next 365 days to see how the planning (or indeed writing) of Piledriver is progressing.

For now, though, bugger doing any more work tonight.
Come on, it’s my birthday.

Categories
do a D&D games story

So you wanna do a D&D (part 5)

Okay, we’re in the home stretch now; sorry about the delays, but I drifted into writing these posts on about the same schedule as my own D&D game (13th Age, whatever) and that basically fills up my brainspace for the whole day.

Alright, let’s assume you’ve picked a game, you’ve got a setting in mind and you’ve assembled a group of players. You’ve got the tools you need to start writing your first D&D story.

The next step is doing that. So what tips and advice do I have?

Well, let’s start with this moment of Zen.

Don’t write a D&D story

You don’t write a D&D story – because you aren’t the author. The GM is just one contributor to the story that occurs at the table (or over video chat right now), not on paper; the players are your collaborators, and without their input that story will never be crafted. You’re vital to this process, but so are they.

So don’t think of creating a D&D story (or adventure) as ‘writing’; that puts you in the wrong mindset, and suggests that your job is to create a finished text that is your pure vision. Instead, think of it as pitching a concept to a team of writers, or of developing a plot that someone else will flesh out into a story. You’re a showrunner, not an author.

This also means that your adventure plan won’t look like a finished story, or maybe even a coherent document; mine are just chunks of bullet points and notes to myself like ‘insert magical bullshit here’. It’ll probably be more like a compartmentalised outline – brief plans and options that become looser, sketchier and more disconnected the further you go into it. Get comfortable with that, and don’t waste time trying to pretty up your notes so that they read well to other people.

Bring that beat back

I don’t love the notion of ‘beats’ that has drifted from screenwriting to permeate most writing discussion. It’s a model of plotting that focuses on isolated intellectual/emotional payoff scenes, rather than developing an overall coherent and effecting narrative.

But it turns out beats are a perfect tool for creating the bones of a D&D adventure, because that story is assembled by the players experiencing those isolated payoff scenes. Hell, dungeons – the granddaddy of all this fantasy adventuring – are little more than a collection of self-contained or loosely connected beats; each room of goblins, traps, puzzles and/or general fantasy nonsense is its own payoff.

vegetarian beats are also effective

Once you have an adventure concept, resist the urge to come up with a linear storyline that characters must complete to finish the tale. Instead, brainstorm a collection of beats/scenes that could be part of that story, then implement one if/when the decisions of the players and characters make it relevant for the story. This technique requires a little work up front, but less than planning out a complete linear storyline, and pays off with its flexibility during play.

Keep it simple, keep it short

Let’s be real – we love big stories, we love fat books, we love EPICS. When folks listen to a D&D podcast, or watch an actual play stream, they love the long, intricate plots that many of them present – and if they’re new to all this, might come away thinking that the job of a GM is to create a 60-session epic tale.

DO NOT TRY TO CREATE A 60-SESSION EPIC TALE

Don’t try to create one as your first ever D&D story; hell, don’t try to create one after you’ve been doing it for years. Grand plans are a trap; they force you to start thinking linearly, they rob players of agency and they rely on everyone sticking with you from start to finish, which will not happen because life gets in the way.

oh look, another awesome RPG book I co-wrote, how did that get here

A short, simple story is the best place to start with D&D, and frankly it’s the best way to continue. You can get a lot of player engagement from something accessible and punchy, and you can keep it by following it up with another story the same length, and another, and then another. Those can build on each other and escalate, making something like an episodic TV series with an emergent arc, or they can stay self-contained like a anthology of fantasy stories ala Conan or Thieves’ World.

How short and simple? There’s a model called the Five-Room Dungeon that is the perfect foundation for a D&D adventure. Those rooms are:

  • an entrance with a guardian that must be overcome
  • a puzzle or roleplaying challenge
  • a trick or setback
  • a big climax
  • a reward, revelation and/or plot twist

The model refers to dungeons, but these ‘rooms’ could be any kind of scene. If you’ve brainstormed a bunch of beats, choose five ahead of time, or in the moment, and keep the rest for the next adventure.

There’s a lot to discuss about this model and I don’t have the space here – you can find fuller explanations here, and even a free ebook with almost 90 sample dungeons (of varying) quality if you want. Check those out and think about how the model could work for you.

Make the story about your characters

It’s easy to come up with a (short, simple) D&D story concept in a vacuum, have players come up with characters, then run that story as (not) written. It’s easy, and it can be fun, but the game won’t be as compelling or engaging as it could be because the characters aren’t connected to the story in meaningful ways.

The single most important and effective way to engage players is to centre stories around their characters. It’s not a generic magic sword they’re sent to find – it’s the ancestral sword of the wizard’s family, stolen generations ago. It’s not a random villager who’s gone missing, but the kindly innkeeper who gave the rogue a job when she got out of prison. The villain isn’t just some mystery dude in black armour, but the corrupted father of one of the heroes, someone he thought long dead, DO YOU SEE WHAT I DID THERE

The best tool you have for this is the players themselves. Don’t come up with a story idea until after they make characters. Be part of that process, asking them questions about their heroes and seeing what ideas they want to explore. Work one or two of those ideas into each story, involving different characters each time, so that there are always personal stakes for someone in the group. You can make each player feel like their character is the central hero, and all it takes is a couple of simple plot connections in each story.

Stuff it, just buy one

Does this all sound too much like work? It is – it’s not hard work, and if you’re anything like me it’s work you’ll enjoy, but the world is a fuck and maybe you don’t have time for that. Fortunately, there is a solution – you can just use someone else’s story instead!

No matter what game you run, you’re certain to find pre-written adventures out there – some cheap, some free, some bloody expensive. If you run D&D, you’ll find vast quantities of them at the DM’s Guild site; for every other game, you’ll probably find some at DriveThruRPG. Those are both PDF sites; if you prefer print, your options will be a lot more limited and a lot more expensive, but see how you go.

The thing about pre-written adventures is that they go against all the advice I just gave you: they tend to be long, they tend to be linear, and they’re generic rather than being tailored for your character group. It’s not hard to simplify, open up and personalise them – but now you’re doing the work you were trying to avoid!

I’m honestly not trying to rag on pre-written adventures – trust me, I have literally hundreds of them on file and I buy more all the time. But they’re a starting point, not an end point; the best of them are the ones that know that and give you tools to make them your own.

If you want to read some adventures and get ideas, start with free ones, maybe splurge on a couple that cost 2-3 bucks. Don’t drop $60 on a deluxe hardcover, or a series of booklets that promise you a year-long epic campaign, not until you’re sure that you actually like this whole roleplaying thing.

nuthin’ to do with me, but still good

If you’re sold on running actual D&D and want something that can sustain you for a while, my advice is to avoid the official campaigns as they’re expensive and kind of shallow. Instead, check out Ruins of the Grendleroot, an independent product with an evocative premise, lots of personalisation advice and a variety of short, simple adventures that build into something bigger, just like I suggested earlier.

…no, I didn’t write it.

I am capable of recommending things I didn’t write, you know.

Next time – the epic conclusion!

Categories
do a D&D 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 do a D&D 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
do a D&D 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
do a D&D 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.