Shadow play – Part I, themes and characters

May 5, 2014

I started writing this to present a single seed of an idea and have a little fun. It has since grown into a fairly thorough four-part series of essays and examples on game design, looking at aspects both mechanical and personal. Writing is, indeed, fun.

When last I wrote a dimensional character design exercise, I referenced the heaps and heaps of spare material writers tend to have around. Whenever an idea strikes me . . .

Okay, let me be more direct than that. “Inspiration” should not be construed as “And thus did my muse place a new and wondrous idea upon my brain, as if from the very ether!” No, an idea may “strike me” because I just played a cool videogame and I want to make one that’s better. Ideas come from anywhere. Therefore I have computer files filled with little story points, character ideas, game systems, one-to-two-line jokes, and whatever else, written tidbit by fun tidbit as I live my own life (and thus live stories).

So recently I found myself writing some loot tables (a player searches for loot, someone rolls a random number, and the corresponding entry on the table states what the player finds). I wondered when I’d have the chance to play a fleshed-out game as envisioned for these tables: sharing the fun is kinda important. In my last character exercise, I suggested tossing more of my personal gaming material up here, like these very tables. Why not mix efforts: why not use the exercise to flesh out the game? It’s almost like it was meant this way!

Huge blog intro done, let’s get to work.

The story/videogame/RPG takes place after human society has collapsed. Yes, I know that everyone and their annoying kid metaphor has done post-apocalyptic tales, particularly post-zombie-apocalyptic. Which is why I have no intention of zombies at this time. There are so many interesting ways for “it all to end,” especially when you realize that “it” doesn’t “all end”: even nuclear obliteration would leave cute little bacteria, and it’s the funniest thing but somehow all these apocalypses leave humans to advance the plot.

“New beginning” is written all over such stories, especially after a healthy dose of “What is the nature of humanity?” Thus, of course, the point of this story is to ask “Can the darkness ever truly leave our hearts?” In this case a quote from the Broken Saints movie series which I once edited. After making such a big deal last time about how “games are culture,” there’d better be a more meaningful point than just “VIOLENCE!” and learning from the greats is probably healthy.

So a pity I told you the point, because the rest of this is about to get really obvious. The “end” came when a large portion of people in our world “vanished into the shadows,” leaving a vast emptiness of crashed machines and failing social systems. Unnatural solar eclipses started to occur, covering swaths of the world in twilight, and in these areas people would disappear and new terrifying shadow creatures would arrive.

As the moon was often still visible elsewhere in the sky during the eclipses, they were inexplicable as a natural phenomenon. And as an eclipse is a matter of perspective, the very idea of it happening so perfectly reveals it to be a deliberate act: someone or something wanted the sun’s shadow to fall on humanity. Likewise, the shadows cast by spawned creatures do not behave as per physics: their shadows point close to those they are hunting. Even if a creature itself is not backlit, a human standing in the light may see a subtle warning of danger nearby. Survivors are thus advised to count the number of shadows underfoot regularly.

The lot of surviving humans is complex. With no more mass production, resources now come either from scavenging or from creating a new system of supply in desperate circumstances. That’s, say, eating old canned food on one hand, and hunting packs of stray animals on another. Gangs form (of quite mixed membership) to control resources, but easily-looted standards like gun stores are already emptied, so the gangs find themselves in the bizarre situation of claiming greenhouses and pet shelters to survive. People who wander into the wrong territory may be killed, or may be enslaved to labor on purifying drinking water.

Huge worldbuilding intro done, let’s get some characters.

I’ll create some “early-level” characters who drive the player’s experience. I will make two groups of gang members, being one-dimensional character classes, and a two-dimensional straggler trying to survive and make sense of the disaster. I’ll use RANDOM.ORG to tell me the size of each gang, the 2-D character’s gender, and, in consultation with my loot tables (remember those?), the sorts of resources each possesses.

. . . Okay, the random results seem a bit hard to interpret, so I’ll just post the finished products. Again, if you are interested in anything I post and want to use it somewhere (such as in a tabletop gaming session), just ask me. I like to know where my children are.

1-D character class: Member of Gang 1.
Trait: Conspiring.
Description: One of 12 people. Claims a territory of businesses and cheap lodging that once served a shipping area, as the warehouses are uninhabitable (unless one wants to be eaten by shadow creatures) and serve as a protective wall against other gangs. Survives off the contents of multiple vending machines among other scavenged food, has medical supplies, but is poorly armed. Exactly one individual has a gun while the rest use improvised weapons.
Dialogue: Idle – “We’ve gotta take someone down. Someone with goods.”
Idle – “Why aren’t I calling the shots already?”
Fight – “Who let you in here?!”
Fight – “You think you’ve got it all figured out!”

1-D character class: Member of Gang 2.
Trait: Desperately hopeful.
Description: One of 8 people. Claims territory beyond a river (unusable due to runoff trash) in a community garden surrounded by apartments. Has combined several window box vegetable gardens together as well and has nailed an array of tarps overhead around the area. This provides cover, rainwater, and diffuse lighting, while no enemy can approach unseen. Armed for melee, including a fire axe and knives, but is low on all other practical equipment.
Dialogue: Idle – “This should work. It’s working. This should work.”
Idle – “We’re gonna make it, right?”
Fight – “We’ve got it good here! Scram!”
Fight – “Don’t cause any more trouble!”

2-D character: “Dirty” Wesson.
Traits: Resourceful, aesthetic.
Description: One more desperate man in the city, this one nonetheless mildly shaven. Armed with nothing but a wood plank, surviving on nothing but canned soda, his supplies bound well in a bundle of spare clothing tied across his back.
Dialogue: Intro – “Back off! Wait, you’re not with the gang? Finally, help me get this furniture moved, I need to secure the roof. You hold that side. Well?”
Intro – “Good, been needing a second pair of hands. Nasty ones, but whatever. Name’s Wesson; ‘Dirty’ Wesson. Now move these down to the front door before it gets any darker.”
Intro – “Nice view, isn’t it? You can almost ignore the smoke and the spraypaint. Sometimes I can’t tell who’s done worse for humanity: the creatures or the humans. Anyway, next time we can sneak around without getting eaten, we’d better go raiding.”
Idle – “Looks like rot was the best thing to happen to this place.”
Idle – “You sure you didn’t leave something?”
Fight – “Take ’em down clean!”
Fight – “Don’t break anything important!”

1-D character class: Member of Gang 3. (Bonus! These are too fun.)
Trait: Doomsaying.
Description: One of 10 people. Claims a supermarket as territory, though of course the best foods are gone by now, and the group survives on bagged items and rainwater off the roof. Is set for clothing, rubbing alcohol, and other basic necessities, and is mostly armed with knives and glass bottles. A very few have guns.
Dialogue: Idle – “The darkness is everywhere and we let it in . . . ”
Idle – “Just have to wait. Just have to wait for them . . . ”
Fight – “You’ll bring them here!”
Fight – “You’re dead one way or another!”

. . . So here I got to test my loot tables, which seem to give okay results once the dungeonmaster (me) steps in to weave it all together. I haven’t explained a single thing about “shadow creatures”: this is just the surface seen at the start of the plot.

Of course, every word of dialogue is written holding the story’s point or message in mind: human failings and our attempts to go beyond them. Except the “going beyond them” part (“darkness leaving hearts”) doesn’t seem too clear. As it stands, it sure looks someone could make a mindless “VIOLENCE!”-themed game out of this. I will elaborate on themes and the player’s experience in my next post. Conveniently, it all ties in to the mysterious monsters.

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