Categories
games story worldbuilding

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

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

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

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

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

Why setting matters

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

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

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

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

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

Setting impacts tone in three major ways:

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

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

Given that – what setting should you use?

The one in the book

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

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

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

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

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

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

One from a different book

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

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

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

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

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

Create your own world!

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

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

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

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

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

…or don’t!

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

**leans in close**

Setting doesn’t matter.

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

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

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

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

BOOM DONE THAT’S IT YOU HAVE A SETTING NOW

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

I mean, this is just lovely

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

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

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

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

I’ll explain later. Promise.

Categories
character games story

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

And the saga continues!

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

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

D&D set us up the bomb

*HARD RESET* okay we’re good now

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

Speaking of knobs…

Characters, created

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rules complexity

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

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

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

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

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

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

…or just use D&D if you want

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

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

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

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

Places to go, faces to punch

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

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

Categories
games genre story

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

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

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

The D&D story revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The same but cheaper

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problem children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Categories
games story

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

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

What does 'Darkseid is' mean? - Quora

…okay, this is off to a great start.

Take two

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s start with the most fundamental question.

What’s the deal with Dungeons & Dragons?

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

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

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

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

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

The default D&D story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why are those the only two options?

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

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

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

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

Categories
story superheroes Uncategorized writing

Digging a hole in the flaw

I’ve had something on my mind for a while now, but I didn’t feel like it was the right time to get into. It was too soon. Our wounds were still too raw.

But months have gone by, and it’s time to finally step up and admit it.

Avengers Endgame was kind of a mess, y’all.

I’M SORRY BUT YOU KNOW IT’S TRUE

Why was it a mess? Lots of reasons, but two in particular I want to talk about – plot holes and story flaws.

…wait, aren’t those kind of the same thing?

No! And that’s the thing that I actually want to discuss and unpack, using Avengers Endgame (and another piece of media that I’ll get to presently) as my go-to example.

Do I need to tell you that there will be spoilers? Oh my, so many spoilers. Read on at your own risk.

I mean, the film was fun. I liked most of it a lot! And I jumped up and down in my chair like a giddy child when – and here’s the first spoiler – Captain America picked up Mjolnir and used it to smack Thanos in the face. It wasn’t a surprise, but it was very satisfying.

But someone on Twitter said that Endgame was a better experience than it was a movie, and that’s about right. It was a movie terribly susceptible to fridge logic – those moments days or weeks later when you open the fridge, look inside and think ‘hey, wait, that thing in that movie didn’t make much sense!’

Those moments are usually the times when we notice plot holes – ways in which the logical flow of a plot fails. Plots need to have a flow from A to B to C, even if that flow is sometimes only visible when looking back from C. Is that obvious? Yeah, maybe, but this post is about how these terms get confused, so I might as well kick off with some definitions.

Let’s start with a little one – Rhodey changes War Machine armours between scenes without explanation, shifting from black-and-grey to big-bulky-red. Plot hole! And one that doesn’t matter! This kind of minor continuity error might bother a few people, but that portion of the plot flow isn’t too important in the overall scheme of things.

The hole that matters is a lot bigger. And that is – how the hell did Thanos and his army of minions time travel to fight the Avengers? You can’t time travel without a dose of Pym Particles, but the team have just enough to make their own round trips. There’s no scene where the bad guys get more, no explanation of how they break the rules the film spends aaaaaaages detailing, unpacking and using to propel the plot forward.

That, friends, is a bonafide, load-bearing plot hole. As is the question about how geriatric Steve Rogers popped up at the end of the film; once again, this breaks the rules the movie already established, which stated that going into the past created alternate timelines. He couldn’t have been there all along – so how did he get there?

The question is always ‘how’ with a plot hole. It’s mechanical, it’s about process; it’s linking up that chain of causality.

Now, in this case, the Russo brothers have apparently addressed these plot holes (and others) after the fact, saying ‘one of Thanos’ henchmen made some Pym Particles’ and ‘other timeline inventors came up with a way to get Steve across.’ It must be so liberating to just say, after the fact, ‘oh, there’s an explanation that makes sense if you accept that the movie has an objective reality outside what we filmed’ and to have (some) people accept it. Kind of makes you wonder why you’d bother with a plot at all, rather than just three hours of CGI explosions and then naked Stan Lee saying ‘A wizard did it!’ in the post-credits scene.

For the rest of us, plot holes need to be fixed before the book/movie/game is out in the world. Luckily, they usually aren’t that hard to fix. ‘How’ questions have fairly straightforward answers, because they’re (once again) about process. Just work out an explanation, then write a scene or two to insert that explanation and then smooth over the edges. It’s work, but it doesn’t have to be incredibly hard work. Logic can guide you.

Logic is your friend. It’s here for you. Even though you never call.

But it’s not always easy finding logic when you need it, because in these benighted end time, people – and I mean internet people – tend to slap the PLOT HOLE sticker onto anything that they don’t like or understand in a piece of media.

Case in point – I’m not linking to it, ’cause I forgot the address and also can’t be bothered, but there was a fansite that listed multiple instances of ‘The Avengers changed stuff in the past, but it didn’t cause a paradox!’ as plot holes in Endgame. And I’m like… buddy, work on your comprehension skills! That stuff was specifically called out within the film as not causing paradoxes! There were whole scenes devoted to explaining that changing the past actually just creates a new timeline – which, okay, is one of the things that set up that whole Old Steve thing I mentioned earlier.

But yeah – sometimes a ‘plot hole’ is just the audience missing something. And try as you might, you can’t make your plot points foolproof. You just gotta move on.

A much bigger point of confusion is when a ‘plot hole’ is actually a story flaw. And that’s a much more complex thing to unpack.

Quick question: what’s the difference between plot and story? Here’s my take:

  • Plot: a series of things happen
  • Story: a series of things happen for reasons

It’s super-reductive but it works – a story is a plot with purpose, rather than just a chain of events. A problem with the story is a problem with those reasons and purpose, not the chains of connection. The links are there – they just don’t feel right.

For me, the big story flaw in Endgame was Steve Rogers decided ‘fuck it, I’ve done enough, going back to the past to dance with my sweetheart for 60 years and retire’. That decision doesn’t click with what we’ve seen of him in the movies up to this point (and absolutely doesn’t work with the character as developed in the comics, but that’s a whole different nerd-argument). The story needed to provide the right context to underpin and justify that decision, which it didn’t; instead, it’s basically just waving it off and moving on.

Chris Evans would like to eat carbohydrates again please

A story flaw is a why question. Why did that happen? Why did this character make that decision? Why do I find this story emotionally unsatisfying? These are outcome questions, context questions; they’re harder to pin down than how questions, and the answers are murky and unreliable. A fix for one reader/viewer may not work for another, and definitely won’t work for a third. But still, they need to be addressed – if only to the point where you’re happy with your solution and think it makes emotional sense.

The other issue with story flaws is that, well, sometimes they say less about your work and more about your audience. Which is where we turn to our second example piece of media – Game of Thrones.

I’ll be honest up front – haven’t watched it. Haven’t watched any of it. Never plan to, either! But I am aware of its details through geek osmosis and the omnipresent discourse. And thus I am aware that its ending was… controversial? Many people on the ‘webs thought that the ruler of Westeros should have been someone other than Boy Who Looks Like an Sleepy Ferret. To me, that sounds like a story flaw.

Meanwhile, some of the other commentary around that last season was ‘How is Arya Stark so competent, given that she’s a girl and therefore sucks?’ Which sounds like someone’s prejudices dangling in their face like a flaccid dick flopping down from their forehead. And also sounds like about 75% of online geek discussion.

And it can be hard to tell the difference (sometimes) between ‘this doesn’t make sense to me for valid reasons’ and ‘this doesn’t make sense to me because women/PoC/LGBT folks/I-dunno-Norwegians shouldn’t have agency’. Because both those statements are framed the same way, and both get stated (or shouted) a lot in these dying days of human civilisation. So we need to bear that in mind when hearing criticism that speaks to whether something ‘makes sense’.

When presented with a how problem, you get to work. When presented with a why question, you need to dig deeper and decide whether you agree before you try to fix things – or not.

So… why go into this in so much depth? Or at least length? Well, because ‘plot hole’ gets bandied around far too much, and I think it’s good to distinguish between problems. And because the Endgame thing was nagging at me, and I needed to find a way to unpack that.

And maybe because this year’s batch of Seasonal Affective Disorder is finally wearing off, and I wanted to write something for a change.

And I did.

Anyway. Fix the things that need fixing. Be clear about which things don’t need fixing, and which audience members can be ignored and ideally jettisoned. Don’t sign over your kingdom to Baby Liam Gallagher.

And remember to include the goddamn Pym Particle scene next time. I swear to god.

Categories
story writing

I like yes-and-no-buts and I cannot lie

Okay, so this post starts by talking about improv theatre, then moves into roleplaying, then into writing, then maybe back and forth between gaming and writing for a bit?

I dunno, I’m writing this bit at the start. Which is probably a bad move.

Anyhoo, moving on.

One of the truisms of improv theatre – which I used to do a lot of back in my 20s, a revelation that should shock exactly no-one – is that you never block an offer. An ‘offer’, in this case, is an idea from your co-improviser, or the audience, or whoever, and ‘blocking’ is the act of shutting that idea down.

The obvious block is saying ‘no’ and negating someone’s offer:

  • ‘Good lord, Holmes, how will you solve this mystery while you’re all fucked up on cocaine?’
  • ‘What are you talking about? I’m not Sherlock Holmes and I’ve never touched drugs.’

More subtly, you can block an offer by saying ‘yes’ to it, but not actually building on that offer – you accept the suggestion but don’t take it anywhere.

  • ‘Good lord, Holmes, how will you solve this mystery while you’re all fucked up on cocaine?’
  • ‘I don’t know, Watson. My reasoning skills have shut down due to all this coke.’
I didn’t watch this and I do not regret that decision.

So the rule that improv students internalise is ‘yes and’ – you accept the offer and you extend or build on it.

  • ‘Good lord, Holmes, how will you solve this mystery while you’re all fucked up on cocaine?’
  • ‘You fool, Watson! This cocaine energises my reasoning faculties, leading me to the inescapable conclusion that you murdered all these fish cultists!’

Once you get enough experience, you realise that ‘yes and’ has its own problems, and there are other ways to manage offers, but it works at the start. And it’s such a simple, powerful principle that it’s managed to escape the gravity well of improv and get taken up in other creative quarters, such as gaming and writing.

But I’m not convinced that that’s always for the best.

Okay, moving on to gaming, specifically roleplaying.

99% of RPGs involve some kind of success/failure mechanic – either at the granular task level or the larger scene level. D&D kept it simple at first – everything was pass/fail, succeed or don’t. Over time, critical successes and failures crept into the lexicon – you could get a very good success with extra benefits, or a very bad failure with extra you-drop-your-sword-and-your-pants-at-the-same-time.

Over the course of, jesus shit, 45 years(!) (!!!), RPGs (as a whole) have expanded to allowing six different levels of payoff or detail in success/failure outcomes. We can define these using the language of improv, which has definitely influenced RPG discourse:

  • Yes-and: You succeed and you get something more in addition
  • Yes: You succeed and you get what you want
  • Yes-but: You succeed but something goes wrong, or you get somewhat less than what you want
  • No-but: You fail but something else goes right, or you get something to mitigate the failure
  • No: You fail and don’t get what you want
  • No-and: You fail and something else goes wrong; it’s even worse than not getting what you want

(I’m far from the first to block things out this way; the Freeform Universal RPG (FURPG), which I have never read nor played, also does this. Apparently.)

Sure, Google Image Search, this will do.

Over the last few years I’ve been running a lot of games that lean into the more complex outcomes, such as the various Powered by the Apocalypse games, and spinoffs like the excellent Blades in the Dark. These games generally revolve around four outcomes:

  • Yes-and
  • Yes
  • Yes-but
  • No-and

These aren’t equal weightings; yes-and is vanishingly rare (if it’s an option at all), while no-and comes up all the damn time. More importantly, a straight no is off the table. You can’t just fail and hit a wall; failures always add complications to the story. (As do some successes.)

As a GM, this is fuckin’ awesome. I want complications, I want messiness – goddamnit, I WANT DRAMA. And I love that these systems not just give me opportunities for that drama, but that most of these games give me guidance about what kind of drama and complications will suit the story we’re putting together.

But – you knew there’d be a but – I’ve come to realise that this kind of dynamic doesn’t always work for players. There are players that find this frustrating or stressful, because nothing is ever straightforward or low-stakes. Obstacles never just sit still, or allow characters breathing room to try again or think of new approaches. When everything is shifting and dynamic, aiming for maximum drama, some players feel stressed and pressured, missing the chance to brush off low-stakes failures and move on.

And to be 100% clear, there’s nothing wrong with feeling this way. Games are meant to be fun; if a players isn’t having fun, that’s not their fault, but the fault of the game/game-master for not meeting players’ needs.

Thinking about this kind of GM-player divide has made me think about what players get out of games, and what readers get out of stories. Sometimes we don’t want drama; sometimes we want harmony, or simplicity, or just relief from this dumpster fire of a world.

We need to remember that sometimes we want stories to help us feel happy.

Which brings us, FINALLY, to the writing part of the post.

Here’s the thing about writers – we love to fuck over our characters.

WE LOVE TO SHOVE OUR CHARACTERS FACE-FIRST INTO THE DRAMA TOILET AND FLUSH FLUSH YEAH TASTE THAT DRAMA AND PEE-WATER FLUSH

…ahem.

But is that what our readers always want? Is that always what’s best for the story? Does everything have to be yes-and/no-but all the time? Or is there room to pull the stakes back – to make some challenges less dramatic and more enjoyable or even cathartic for the reader? To live in the land of yes/yes-and and have no truck with no-but?

And if we do that, how do we show it?

In fiction, yes and no outcomes tend to be kind of invisible. If your daring thief/spy easily sneaks past the guards, the story usually skips past that scene in one line to get to the dramatic bit. If they fail to slip past but don’t get caught, the next scene is usually them acknowledging that, trying something different and focusing on that instead. Simple outcomes don’t translate well into prose; all of our tools are about portraying the tension and drama of complex outcomes. ‘Thank U, next’ works for songs, not so much for stories.

But I think we need to consider this, especially in a ‘tumultuous’ (i.e. THE WORLD IS ON FIRE) time when so many readers look to fiction for support and comfort as much as they do challenge and drama. We need to think about easy victories and minor defeats – what they can add to our stories, and how we portray them in ways that develop and cement our characters.

Because without these small victories, these cankers and medallions (yes that’s a reference sorry), some of the readers that we want to engage are going to bounce off out stories.

And fool that I am, I want to engage everyone.
I want us all to get the yes (and occasional yes-and) outcomes that we crave.

WRITING UPDATE: I’m about halfway through The Obituarist 3: Delete Your Account and there is precious little yes/yes-and in this story. I’m okay with this; after Kendall got his [REDACTED] bitten [NOPE] by a [SPOILERS] in the second book, I figure what few readers remain are reconciled to him having nothing but bad days from now on.

I too am having bad days, though – specifically, days where our lease doesn’t get renewed and we have to look for a new house YET AGAIN. This will likely slow down my writing schedule, ‘cos house hunting is a full-time occupation rivalled only by the actual packing and moving process.

But I’m keeping at it.
Will let you know how it goes.

Categories
story wrestling

Invisible story grenade

Hey folks – first, an apology for running so late and slow on blog posts right now. Turns out that when you’re writing about the way someone else tells stories, you need to do your research – which, in this case, means watching a lot of wrestling.

Oh boy. So much wrestling. It eats up all my time.

Because there is a lot of wrestling in the world, even though most of what you see/hear about is the WWE product. There are some very different ways of arranging grappling matches, and different ways of telling stories in that space. And if you want to see something that goes in a really distinct direction, while still having some of the same foundations (and still being in English), then you want to look at Chikara.

chikara-2014Chikara is a large independent promotion based out of Philadelphia, who put on shows in their own venue while also travelling for some national and even international shows. (They haven’t come to Australia yet, but fingers crossed.) They’re known for solid wrestling that mixes technical and lucha libra styles, a large roster of over-the-top characters, complex comicbook-inspired plotlines and a (mostly) light-hearted, family-friendly approach to the wrestling form.

What does that mean in terms of storytelling, and what lessons can be learned for prose writing? I have many thoughts. And another long-arse post in which to unpack them.

Making the most of what you’ve got

The first thing you notice when you watch a Chikara match is the low production values – well, low in comparison to WWE, anyway. There are no big display screens, no pyro, no video packages summarising feuds – just a ring and some wrestlers performing for maybe 200 people sitting near the stage. But what Chikara does is use those limitations to their advantage, funnelling almost all their storytelling (apart from the occasional, very basic speech-to-camera promo on their recordings) into the ring. That means that stories and character development happen right in front of the audience, who are close enough to the action to feel like they’re genuinely part of it; that keeps them in-the-moment so that they don’t feel distanced from the crazy plot elements. It all works, and it wouldn’t in a bigger, louder, glitzier environment that fostered a sense of detachment in the fans. (Lesson: Limitations provide the boundaries around a creative space, so work with the tools you have to make something distinct and effective in that space.)

Playing the long game

Chikara storylines are strange (more on that later), but more than that, they’re long. Plotlines play out monthly, rather than weekly, and a plot point set up in January might not fully play out until December or even the following season. The biggest plotlines play out the longest – I think the current major arc, with the evil god Nazmaldun corrupting wrestlers to make an army of demon heels, has been going for about 18 months – but smaller arcs start and finish in the foreground as the big stories grind on. It’s these big plotlines that hook Chikara fans, and the degree to which the promoters commit to them – for one major storyline, they shut Chikara down for an entire year so that they could return with a bang. But they can also make new audiences feel overwhelmed, they’re vulnerable to real-world changes (like wrestlers getting injured) and they have to be paced very carefully to maintain the momentum. Chikara generally pulls these stories off, but the effort involved is clear. (Lesson: Big stories fascinate audiences and get attention, but you have to manage them carefully, and provide entrance points so that readers don’t get lost in all the detail.)

Diversity ain’t hard (but it ain’t always easy either)

Chikara fields a huge roster of wrestlers, with different fighting styles, body shapes, skill levels and performance techniques, and they often host wrestlers from other promotions. WWE’s wrestlers are all ‘competitive athlete’ archetypes; Chikara has many of those but also fantasy princesses, superheroes, clowns, humanoid ice-creams, monsters, cultists, sea creatures, ants (so many ants), dudes with weird names (my fave is FLEX RUMBLECRUNCH) and a man with a mustachioed baseball for a head. And if you held a gun to my head I still couldn’t tell you about 90% of the their personalities or story arcs, because I haven’t had the time to invest in learning about them over those aforementioned long, slow arcs. Chikara has wonderful diversity, but I feel like it comes at the expense of strongly defined characters. (Lesson: try to embed diversity and personality in a small, controllable set of characters, rather than a sprawling ensemble, or else variation comes at the expense of depth.)

Audience buy-in

So okay, let’s talk about storylines. Chikara’s are weird. They involve demonic corruption, supervillains, time-travel, evil duplicates, mind control, black ops military units, magic… it’s superhero-universe craziness, but with fewer special effects. The shorter arcs tend to be a bit less over-the-top, but still aren’t ‘realistic’, and the in-ring storytelling often involves superpowers, magic and other shenanigans. And the audience loves it, because a) it’s fun, b) it’s underpinned by a foundation of really solid, high-energy wrestling, and c) everyone watching knows coming in that this is what Chikara offers, and that getting on board with it is the price of admission. The price is worth it; this is, after all, a promotion where a wrestler wins matches by throwing an invisible hand grenade at his opponents in slow motion, and you can’t get that on Smackdown.

(Lesson: Know your audience and what they’ll enjoy, then make that without too much worrying about justification. They’ll suspend disbelief and come along for the ride if they’re with you.)

Using structure to set up stories

The other, less obvious thing about Chikara’s plotting is how it actively uses the trappings and structure of genuine athletic competition as a storytelling foundation. Like most promotions they have single and tag-team champion belts, but wrestlers have to gain points in order to qualify to compete for those belts; they also have a variety of trophies and other prizes, and tournaments to qualify for them. These elements help to ground the crazy stories, but more importantly they provide a reason for two (or more) wrestlers to fight in the first place – which then opens up storytelling space for more personal issues or feuds to emerge from that initial match. The upshot is that every match, no matter how ‘standard’, feels like it has a reason to exist (something WWE often fails to achieve). (Lesson: every action/conflict scene needs a premise (why they’re fighting) and stakes (what they win/lose) in order to connect to the reader.)

Family-friendly murder

Chikara are a family-friendly promotion, with storylines and ring action meant to engage and entertain kids (and adults). They back this up with some pretty strict performance rules – no blood, no swearing, no sexual content. But murder? Murder is fine. Many wrestlers and side characters have been ‘killed’ in the ring by heels and monsters; a long-running storyline saw the supervillian Deucalion murder more than a dozen wrestlers before he was himself killed by the heroic Icarus. So – kid-friendly, except full of death. Is that weird? Kids don’t think so, because kids love elements of horror and danger in their adventures – just listen to the stories they tell each other – and they can differentiate between fun horror and real my-parents-scream-at-each-other-every-night horror. Sanitised, stylised death raises the wrestling stakes in a way young audiences can enjoy, and it can do the same in many other stories as well. (Lesson: Everybody loves murder. Everybody. Go drop a murder into your Regency romance novel right now; it can only help sales. Especially with kids.)

Oof. That was long. I gotta get these things under control.

If you’re interested in checking out Chikara, almost all of their shows going back 16 seasons (years) are available to stream on their website through the Chikaratopia service; it costs $8 US a month, and you can trial it for a week to see if it’s your speed. If you want to get in on the ground floor of stories, start with the beginning of Season 15 or 16; if you want immediate action, watch one of the King of Trios multi-part specials, which is their annual three-person tag tournament that brings in many wrestlers from other promotions. (I hear this year’s was particularly good; watching it as soon as it’s up.)

But be warned when you watch it. You might be exposed to the most illegal move in all of wrestling history:

https://youtu.be/9gh2FOsvuoM

And that’s terrible great.

Categories
character story wrestling

Plot, character, piledrivers

So I’ve been talking about how pro wrestling is a great space for communicating character and story through action – but talk is cheap. What does that actually mean? How do you use ten minutes of sweaty grappling and backflips to define a character, and what kind of stories can you tell through that platform?

The answer is – more than you might think.

I was going to wrap up this series of pro wrestling posts tonight and get back to beating myself up for my lack of productivity, but I kept finding new stuff to write about (and distracted by other stuff, which is why this Monday night post is going up on Friday night) – so let’s assume this is (at least) a two-part post and use part one to set some foundations, with a look at something everyone already knows about – World Wrestling Entertainment/WWE (and also NXT) – and what lessons might be learned.

WWE-logoEven if you’ve never seen a match in your life, you know about WWE; they’re a multi-billion dollar company, the single biggest wrestling organisation in the world. They have two big weekly shows (Raw and Smackdown) on regular TV, monthly pay-per-view events (even bigger shows) and their own $10-a-month wrasslin’ Netflix with more shows than I care to contemplate. The WWE Network is also the home of NXT, their ‘developmental’ offshoot where new performers build their skills/discipline before graduating to the main roster; just as importantly, it’s where they build an audience so that anyone cares about that graduation.

Tonal change is hard

03A lot of folks I follow on Twitter, or who make podcasts I enjoy, are really into the current WWE promotion, or more directly into NXT, and that background interest is probably what drew me back to the sport after a decade away. It’s kind of sad, then, that I find their current product, well… kind of boring. Compared to the flash, speed and silliness of the Attitude Era (late 90s-early 00s), or even the mid-2000s, the current WWE/NXT style of wrestling is more low-key and PG-rated. The focus is on mat-based wrestling, with a mix of technical grappling and strength/power moves – there’s very little aerial wrestling, use of weapons/tools or straight-up brawling. In many ways it’s a ‘purer’ form of wrestling, but I can’t help but miss table/ladder/chair matches. (Lesson: when you set a tone early on, it’s more difficult to bring that tone down and retain readers than it is to raise the stakes and escalate.)

Risk aversion is sensible but boring

The other big change is in the attitude of the corporation, which has come to really emphasise the ‘professional’ in pro wrestling. WWE is a  big, big business, and they don’t want to jeopardise that business by relying on unpredictable, idiosyncratic wrestlers with their own style or ideas about things are meant to work. The result, to my biased eye, is a growing homogeneity among the wrestlers, who are all drawing from the same set of moves and character concepts – moves and concepts largely chosen by an external group of coaches, managers and marketers – rather than bringing their own individual style and flair. And I get that, because you want a reliable and commercially viable product, and for your staff to be safe from injury due to unpredictable circumstances, but it makes it hard for me to tell many of them apart, or to care which one of them wins the day. (Lesson: you don’t have to play it safe, and you can depict any kind of character doing any kind of thing. SO DO THAT. Leave the homogeneity for the real world.)

Stick to the schtick

A lot of character development in WWE comes through visual flags – a wrestler always dresses a certain way, has a specific entrance, uses identifiable gestures. Similarly, every wrestler has signature moves and catchphrases that they’ll use in almost every match and promo – things that reinforce the character in your mind, that make them memorable even if you can’t connect that memory to a specific action or event. That’s a technique that’s very powerful in visual media, but can also be tapped in prose storytelling. (Lesson: set out simple, short signifiers for a character like a piece of clothing, a phrase or even a radical haircut, something you can describe in five words, and drop them into scenes so that readers get that instant bit of connection.)

Enzo_Colin_07312014ca_873-406214323

Use all your tools – but use them properly

WWE make heavy use of promos, vignettes, backstage skits, brief interviews and other non-match showcases to build character, but their in-ring character development is a bit lacking; the current product doesn’t do much to showcase agendas, motivations or unique traits once the bell rings to start the fight. Almost all of that comes before and after, which is maybe the main reason I find their stuff a bit dull right now. Still, all of that developmental material works in building character nuance and substance. What doesn’t work is when the announce team just tell you a character is awesome, even when you can see that they’re a bit shit. WWE have been doing that for years, and if anything it’s even more distancing and annoying now that the video quality is so good and you can see mediocre characters underwhelm you in HD. (Lesson: character can come from lots of interactions and presentations, big or small – but keep the focus on what characters do, and don’t forget about ‘show, don’t tell’, okay?)

We don’t talk about the weird stuff any more

WWE’s storylines used to have a few weird and strange elements, but that’s largely been excised these days. Modern storylines revolve around professional rivalries for belts and prime roster positions, which bring larger paycheques and more merch opportunities. In other words, they’re wrestling stories about wrestling; the business is about the business. That has potential for metatextual shenanigans, but they’re rarely explored, and the end result is a storytelling environment that leaves me kind of cold. At the same time, the rare inclusion of a new element – a personal grudge, a lapsed friendship, a reflection of external factors – is just enough to stand out and get my interest, even if it’s never anything as over-the-top as the Undertaker fighting Kane in the fires of Hell. (Lesson: it’s good to set a baseline of realism, but staying there is kind of boring; look for ways to make stories be about more than their own immediate, sensible and predictable contexts.)

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Good pacing makes up for many sins

The thing that WWE really understands these days, after decades of experimentation, is the rhythm of action storytelling – the pacing skeleton that supports all manner of wrestling meat. A standard WWE feud starts just after a pay-per-view, with hostilities rising between two wrestlers; at the next PPV they either settle things (short arc) or the situations escalates (medium arc). There’s a consistent, engaging build with peaks and troughs, highs and lows – something that gets you pumped and then lets you cool off. Matches are the same; the rise and fall of energy and spotlight in a WWE show is so crisp you could graph it. (Well, usually; I hear the recent SummerSlam PPV was 6 hours long, peaked too soon and burned the audience out by the halfway mark.) (Lesson: knowing the rhythm and flow of fights and stories is more than half the battle of conveying both effectively.)

I signed up for a free month of the WWE Network; that subscription renewed today, and that’s fine, but that’ll do. That gives me time to watch some of the ancillary shows (Breaking Ground is intriguing) and the Cruiserweight Classic, which is my kind of flippy-skippy wrestling, and maybe to take a few more notes on Raw and Smackdown. After that, I think I’ll be happy enough to let it lie. WWE have their own thing, and it works very well for their audience, but I’m okay with not marking out for them any more.

Who do I mark out for? And plunder for storytelling ideas?

Let’s find out next time.

Categories
story writing

Moving on up

So yeah, we moved.

It was a pretty big deal.

…okay, to be specific we moved one train station and we’re still in the same suburb. But none of that negates the time, effort, money, beer and stress that went into getting all our stuff in boxes at one end, sticking them on a truck, driving ten blocks and then unloading them all at the other end. Plus furniture.

So apologies for the radio silence; apologies too for being behind schedule on Obituarist II and a number of other things. But the roadblock is now mostly cleared away, there are only a few dozen more boxes of books and artwork to find homes for, and it’s time to get my blog on.

And tonight’s topic is… writing stories in which people move house. Yes, like the time I did a whole blog post about toothache, I’m taking ‘write what you know’ to its most quotidian extremes and then out the other side.

Off the top of my head, then, here are five ways to get story out of a change of address.

Human drama

You don’t have to have explosions or vampires to get a story that’s tense and full of conflict – you just need reasons for people to yell at each other, and moving house gives you plenty of those. The stress of house hunting, house viewing, making applications, dealing with estate agents, emptying your bank accounts, throwing out half of what you own, wishing you could throw out the other stuff, calling movers who never show up, waiting a damn week to get the internet connected… any and all of these can be fodder for a great story about fighting in cars, crying in the shower and having heroin for breakfast. Throw in poor impulse control and a blunt instrument and you’ve got a solid foundation for a crime story; throw in some dick jokes and you have one of the lesser Richard Pryor movies.

What you leave behind

Moving house is never clean; there’s always something that gets lost in the shuffle. What if it was more important, dangerous and/or embarrassing than a pair of socks or whatever was in the oven? How terrible (and storyworthy) if you left behind a door to Narnia or Venus, the Holy Grail, a bagful of severed heads or a body? Or if your wife/friend/housemate did, and this is the first you’ve learned of it? And while losing it is bad enough, the real story comes from what you’ll do to regain access and get it back (or cover it up forever) before the new occupants move in. Especially if things go wrong. (Spoiler: they’d better go wrong.)

Starting afresh

But forget about what you leave behind – think about where you’re going. Sydney, New York, Alpha Centauri… these are places to begin again, to discard the person you used to be and their problems. This can be simple and personal, something that matters to you and only you (much like when I moved from Brisbane to Melbourne). Or you could have the kind of past that follows you from place to place, and you have to do something dramatic and extreme to shrug off that warrant, that horde of evil shadows, that legacy of pirate vampirism that comes of being the last descendent of Captain Dracula. Moving gives you a new status quo – what will you do to maintain it?

New neighbours

It’s not just about where you live, though – it’s who and what lives around you that has a big impact on quality of life. Hopefully the people are nice, hopefully the streets are friendly, hopefully the pub has your favourite beer. It’s always a shame to move to a new neighbourhood and find the gutters choked with alien blood, the drug dealer upstairs constantly bumping 120-decibel dubstep or that the bottle shop only stocks gin and ichor. Or flip it – maybe your new neighbours are great. Better than great. Maybe they want to give you drugs, teach you their language and take you to bed. Maybe that’s when good neighbours become good friends. WHAT A NIGHTMARE.

The house from hell

Horror stories get it – new places to live always come with secrets. Dangerous secrets, like gates and doors that change you, corridors that grow longer and abandon you between dimensions, or maybe just a shitload of ghosts. Moving in means getting caught up in the baggage of your new address – and no matter it seemed during that ten-minute inspection, it’s going to have a hidden drawback. Maybe there’s a briefcase of stolen money buried in the basement, maybe the One True Grail Knight’s mail still gets delivered there… maybe it’s just asbestos in the walls. Hell, maybe it’s built on top of a forgotten graveyard  – it’s a cliché, sure, but then again there’s a golf course built on the cemetery of a 19th century insane asylum not ten minutes from my place. So now you’re stuck with angry ghosts. Or bones getting stuck in your plumbing.

Rightio, that’ll do. Time to walk the dog, climb the stairs, shove a box of assorted connection leads to one side and call it a night.

And if you’re moving house this weekend, best of luck.

Categories
story writing

To all things… AN ENDING!

‘Endings?’ you snort derisively. ‘What would you know about endings? You’ve spent nearly two years working on the same novel and you haven’t finished it yet, distracted as you are by day jobs, video games and watching Japanese tokusatsu shows on YouTube!’

That’s true, Hypothetical and Unpleasantly Confrontational Reader, although I’ll thank you not to drag my burgeoning interest in Kamen Rider into this. Raven’s Blood is taking too long, but I am drawing close to the end of it, and endings are on my mind, especially after last week’s post on beginnings.

More to the point, that’s not my only project, and last weekend I wrapped up Exile Empire, the 4th ed D&D game I’ve been running for the last 3.5 years. (Only 24 sessions in that time, true, but so it goes.) After adventures throughout Stormreach and against a variety of enemies, the party of heroes ventured into Dolurrh, the Realm of the Dead, to rescue the soul of another adventurer. It was pretty damn fun, lemme tell you – you can read the details here, if you want a bit more context for what follows.

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Now, running a roleplaying campaign ain’t like dusting crops boy writing a novel, but there are things each can learn from the other, as I’ve written about before. Plus, story is story no matter how it’s packaged and delivered, and a satisfying end to a narrative has certain elements no matter whether it’s communicated through deathless prose, dice rolls or a dance battle.

So with that in mind, here are four things that, based on my experiences with good endings and bad (and with the end of Exile Empire as an example), make for a satisfying and engaging ending to any story.

Resolution

The payoff, the big finish, the wrap-up; the ending needs to resolve the core line of the story. That’s not necessarily the same thing as ‘resolve the story’, especially since you might have multiple plotlines going on in a big story and this book might only be the first instalment. But the start of your book is a promise of what the story may hold, especially if you use the start of the story to make your mission statement (and you should); the end of the book is where you need to make good on that promise. In other words, you need to finish, not just end; don’t just come to a sudden stop and say ‘well, book’s done now.’ You might think that would go without saying, but any number of novels make this mistake, including up-to-that-point good ones like Neal Stephenson’s early books.

The premise of Exile Empire was ‘heroes forge new lives in Stormreach and have adventures’, and that’s a formless enough thing that there are many ways I could have ended it. But in those first few sessions we lost two PCs, and that brought up a plot hook where someone stole one of the bodies, and it’s that plot thread – along with arcs that tied back to that hook at some point, and a couple of stand-alone why-the-hell-not side treks – that formed the spine of the campaign; it didn’t start as the mission statement, but it certainly became one soon enough. If I hadn’t made that the central element of the last arc, if I’d dropped that and brought up something new to cap off the campaign, then it might have been enjoyable in and of itself but it wouldn’t have been satisfying. To say nothing of not being as cool as going to the afterlife and beating up a dracolich.

More books should end with dracolich fights. Catcher in the Rye, I’m looking at you.

Closure and breathing room

As resolution is to story, closure is to character; the time to bring their personal arc and growth to a head and draw a line. Imagine for a second the ending of your favourite big action/adventure story – and then it stops right at the climax, with no glimpse of how the characters feel or cope with their victory (or defeat). Sounds pretty dull, right? Right? (Come on, agree with me.) If you hit all the crescendo notes in the climax (or anti-climax, if that’s your thing) and then stop, it’s like coaxing the audience into a sugar high and then telling them to go to bed right now. The dust needs to settle, the wounds need to heal; we need to see how the fulfilment of the story’s promise has changed the characters and how they move on from where they were. Without that character focus, it’s like seeing fight scenes in a loop; cool at first, sure, but eventually boring. And to do that, you need some time post-climax (stop sniggering) to focus on your world and characters, even if only for a quick scene; enough breathing room for everyone to settle into the new equilibrium.

The odd part of Exile Empire’s climax was that it was all about a character who was dead and who didn’t have a strong relationship with any of the surviving PCs. So to make it satisfying I had to give them reasons to care about saving his soul and to brave Dolurrh. Slaine’s master had been hurt when the corpse was stolen; Ash and Spark were caught up in the Prophecy motivating things; Caleb turned out to have a secret connection to the other dead PC, Jin; and Kaddik… okay, he was mostly along for the ride. I backed that up with encounters with the dead villains they’d defeated, plus chances to see how they’d changed Stormreach for the better, so that the players felt invested. And once the dracolich was defeated, we had quick scenes of everyone’s personal aftermath, giving players room to define for themselves how their characters had grown (or not).

Surprises

The thing about the 100% dramatically appropriate ending is that after you see a few of them they become kind of dull. All those expected character and plot ‘beats’ (god I hate that term) sounding at the expected time – even if they’re beautifully crafted, the gloss wears off. And if they’re not beautifully crafted, you get the same ol’ Hollywood ending we always sigh and roll our eyes at. So mix it up some when you get to the end and throw in something no-one expected, maybe not even you. Kill off a major character! Transform an enemy into an ally! Reveal that Rosebud was a sled, but it’s a talking sled and it’s come for revenge and oh god the sled is calling from inside the house! Or something else that isn’t perhaps so crazy. In my defence it’s very hot in my study and I think my brain has curdled.

The big surprise at the end of Exile Empire was that someone would have to stay behind in the Realm of the Dead in order for Alarich’s soul to leave. I hadn’t foreshadowed or suggested that (although it’s a classic ‘journey to the underworld’ trope), and so even though they knew this was the final session, the players had to wrestle with the notion that it would be very final for one of them. That led to earnest discussions and volunteering to stay behind, but when Spark elected to stay it felt both surprising and right – a shock (including to me) but a satisfying one. The other, smaller surprise was learning of Caleb’s connection to Jin and the secret plot he’d been working on all along – again, no real foreshadowing on it, but it felt right nonetheless.

A few loose ends

The other thing about Hollywood endings, while I’m badmouthing them, is that they can feel pat and contrived; they always wrap everything up neatly at the end. So too do some other stories, especially large ones with lots of subplots and hooks (comics/serial fiction is a particular culprit), and for me that rarely feels genuine. At best it feels too easy; at worst it feels rushed and super-forced. I think there’s value in a slightly messy ending to a big story, one where not every prop introduced in Act One gets used in Act Three (sorry, Chekov). Obviously you have to wrap up the core and most important things, but leaving a couple of things dangling, in a way that doesn’t interfere with the resolution of the main plotline, can make an ending feel that little bit more real. And leave room for a sequel.

Like most ongoing/serial games, Exile Empire had a bunch of story hooks and lines that came and went. The last arc of the game wrapped up the main ones – the Storm Hammers, the Prophecy, the trip to the Underworld – but I deliberately left others undone. Whatever happened to Janda-Shen and Ballast? Will Ash’s demonic relatives ever come for him? Who were those people chasing Spark? What was the real story behind Jin, Caleb and Jaris Cantar? What of the Prophecy and the power behind the Emerald Claw? We don’t know, and it’s okay – it didn’t hurt the story to leave those fallow at the end. (In the case of Spark’s story, in fact, the sudden twist of him staying in the Underworld made dropping those threads all the more dramatic.) I have material to work with if I want to return to the campaign (not any time soon, but it may happen), and the players have that sense of being part of something larger, messier and more interesting than the snippet we saw over 24 sessions.

Well, this was meant to be a short and punchy blog post, but that plan has obviously collapsed and died in the heat. Take a note, RPG writers – examples always eat up the wordcount.

What are your thoughts on a satisfying ending? Leave a comment and tell us what you think, even if – especially if – you disagree with my take. And come back next weekend for a look at one way from getting from the beginning to the ending without losing your readers’s attention.

It involves fishing. Yes, really. Metaphorically. Sort of.