February 9, 2017
A tale occurred to me. Inspired in no small part by scenes from Ursula Vernon’s Digger, I give you a short framework for the opening to a story, straight from the top of my head. The premise is something like this . . .
Two wagons, each drawn by two horses and laden with goods for sale, clatter along an unfamiliar road. Ahead the wagoneers see a bridge suspended across a ravine. It is a sturdy bridge, but strange and rough. The strangest is that the ropes are looped around thick polished beams, as though someone were to hook and unhook the ropes every day.
Over the noise of the wagons comes a deep sound as of a giant walking through water. One hand appears on the cliff edge, then another, and the horses rear in panic to see a troll heave itself over the edge, sopping wet from the waist down. The wagoneers struggle to calm the animals, and themselves, as the troll unhooks one of the ropes of the suspension bridge without a word. The bridge sways. The troll goes still.
“I’m hungry.” the troll says, its voice reverberating from cliff to cliff.
As the horses nicker, the people speak with each other in hasty high-pitched tones. They talk of money, and animals, and imbalanced loads. One of them eagerly volunteers to shift goods between one wagon and the next. The other wagoneer, with some hesitation, looks to the troll, standing without motion in a puddle of river water.
“We’ll give you a horse.” the wagoneer says.
The troll watches as the wagoneer undoes and drags over the struggling horse. At last it raises a hand and pulls the beast straight out of the human’s grasp. The wagoneers cannot watch as the horse’s cries end in a snap.
With joint urgency, they finish rebalancing the wagons and look to the troll once again. It continues to stand between them and the bridge, yet now it appears almost thoughtful, dangling a horse by the neck in one hand.
“I have a little one to feed.” the troll says.
At first the wagoneers do nothing. Then they confer, in even hastier tones, of money, and animals, and how they aren’t going to carry boxes on their back, and why they couldn’t just float across the ravine on clouds of optimism if they think they’re getting by this one without trouble, and the one yet to speak to the troll bursts out to it.
“Well why not give us your little one, then?!” the wagoneer says.
The troll staggers, dropping the horse’s remains and ending upright as a tree. The wagoneers are frozen just the same, watching the tremendous creature. Water drips off it unheeded. The wind blows across the ravine.
“Asbjørn!” the troll calls, its voice even louder than before.
There is silence, then a deep sound of water, then one hand appears on the cliff edge, then another, and a troll heaves itself over the edge. It is still the size of a human giant, but smaller than its parent, sopping wet from the chest down.
“Good, you brought your club.” the larger troll says.
“Is it time to eat?” asks the child.
“It is time for you to leave.” answers the troll. With one hand it hooks the rope of the suspension bridge back on its beam, and with the other it takes its meal of horse and begins walking back to the cliff edge.
“What?” asks the child. Its parent says nothing, only climbing down the cliff with its toll.
The three horses struggle against their handlers. The wagoneers are speechless. The troll child looks to them blankly. But the bridge is clear.
. . . So that’s just the start. Obviously it isn’t written out in proper final draft (with, you know, “engaging bits”); perhaps it works best as a script, i.e., for the beginning to a roleplay experience. I know that I want to be there when a bridge troll meets human civilization . . . and harvest festivals . . . and muggers . . .
Anyway, the usual statement applies. 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.
June 7, 2016
The last time I tried to write several brief tidbits from arbitrary story worlds, I proclaimed it too difficult to give “a point” to each one. Now I will do better.
As I said a post prior, I am taking one step into the meta above my own writing. I have filled this blog with writing exercises using randomly-generated features such as gender of character, number of character traits or dimensions, specific traits from a list of 100, names from my Space Trader game, equipment from my non-published loot tables, and story genre. Typically I would designate a point or theme to give a purpose to this writing. Now I have enough “points” that I can randomize these as well and have a writing exercise that, to use technical terminology, shall be completely whacked out.
So to begin.
I will use RANDOM.ORG as usual. All the above will be allowed to vary, including character geometry from one to three dimensions. The loot tables were generated for a post-apocalyptic setting, so I will need to rewrite their content and meaning basically every time, but the process of doing so may be helpful in establishing the character’s role. Of course, everything gets blurry anyway when doing these things: I’m reminded that the names from my Space Trader game are a mass of mixed-culture references.
For fun, after preparing each 2-D or 3-D character, I will flip a virtual coin to see if I follow up with a “1-D creature class” in the same story world, like those I did in my first character design exercise and others that took after it. I get:
Paranormal story world. “Don’t betray all of your friends, or else you’ll be a nasty person and you might die.”
Two-dimensional character. Male. Traitorous, noble. Craft materials.
One-dimensional creature class. Doomsaying. Bandages.
Mechs story world. “Can the darkness ever truly leave our hearts?”
Three-dimensional character. Male. Scoundrel, depressed, disgruntled. Hammers and wrenches.
One-dimensional creature class. Formal. Fists.
Fantasy story world. “Pride goeth before a fall.”
Three-dimensional character. Female. Bookish, restless, sarcastic. Spell components.
Science horror story world. “One fears the unknown.”
One-dimensional character. Male. Desperately hopeful. Mutant fungus and herbology.
. . . This is going to be something else. 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.
2-D character: Pygmalion Rama. (My random rolls said “Galatea,” but I figured on a male character at this time.)
Traits: Traitorous, noble.
Description: Once a figure on a mystical court of intrigue halfway between our world and the next, with the bearing to match. He is pale and his expensive attire has only the slightest rents and tears.
Dialogue: Written – “A walk of the grounds revealed three small children from a nearby school playing at the dead. I must send word to their parents.”
Written – “When I occasion to pass by the paintings I am reminded of old associates memorialized within. Or, in one case, immortalized.”
Written – “The advent of new arrivals has motivated me to put on my face and greet them with the aid of my assistants. They have agreed, quite reasonably, to undertake certain tasks for me. Perhaps it is time to revisit my crafts.”
Written – “It was clear that the new arrivals would rummage about my writings without decorum. They are a curious sort. It is for this reason that I have chosen the crafted word, not the blended paint, for my binding agent.”
1-D creature class: Bound Ghosts.
Description: If it made sense for a mummy also to be a ghost, then mummy ghosts is what these would be. Bound to their master by mystical cloth wrapped to a precise formula, these men and women now handle the material aspects of running Pygmalion’s property. Such as speaking with visitors whatsoever.
Dialogue: Intro – “Welcome, I regret, to the Edmund Estates. The master may be with you shortly, and we may have his word for you shortly thereafter.”
Idle – “Oh, not again.”
Idle – “The master surely has a plan for this one.”
Idle – “It is only a matter of time . . . ”
Idle – “When will they learn?”
3-D character: Itokawa Nyx.
Traits: Scoundrel, depressed, disgruntled.
Description: The rogue mechanic of the Western Wastes, a sturdy man with pencil-thin mustache and baggy clothes like an old martial arts gi. As a side project, he has over-crafted one oversized hammer to give him negotiating power when customers come calling.
Dialogue: Intro – “You want me to fix your ride. I know it. That’s the only reason you’re standing in my sunlight. Well, do you plan on trading fair and square, or is this one of those deals we have to beat out with a hammer?”
Idle – “Never seen a deal that didn’t go south. For somebody.”
Idle – “Still waiting for a real payout.”
Event – “Now you expect me to rebuild this whole thing, don’t you? Do you have the cash?”
Event – “Looks like you’re bleeding out real bad there. Oh, well. Scrap is scrap.”
1-D creature class: Gladiatorial Bots
Description: The most polite blood sport competitors in the world, just without the blood. They are the unmanned combatant robots that round out a mech arena match against live pilots.
Dialogue: Idle – “Online now, sir or madam. Ready to mirror your most savage desires.”
Idle – “Battle is always invigorating! For whomever still stands at the end.”
Fight – “Pardon!”
Fight – “Like so!”
Fight – “Oof, good one!”
3-D character: Crescentia Pathin.
Traits: Bookish, restless, sarcastic.
Description: A retailer of spell components outside the schools of wizardry, robed and spectacled as proper. She has to deal with the college crowd just as with foolhardy adventurers.
Dialogue: Intro – “You there. What do you get when you know half the secrets of the arcane, have half the shares in a mana mine, and owe half a college tuition? Customers.”
Idle – “If you’re not buying, good for you.”
Idle – “A book or a walk: stick to the healthy choices, I say.”
Event – “Do you know how to use that?”
Event – “Don’t come to me when you blow it up in your face.”
Event – “I could demonstrate, but I’ll just let you break it yourself.”
1-D character: Igor Zeus. (I said that these names were a chaotic mix.)
Trait: Desperately hopeful.
Description: One more worker for Quadra Corp, the premier company in fungal hybrid technologies. He and his many labcoated colleagues can be found standing near computer terminals, banging on doors, or being menaced by unleashed fungoid horrors.
Dialogue: Intro – “I don’t care who you are. It’s just one more mystery to me. And to me, the only way to stay safe is to know as little as possible. Now get out of my way.”
Idle – “If I can reach command, I’ll be fine.”
Idle – “They’re sprouting. They’re sprouting!”
Idle – “We can stop these things, can’t we?”
Event – “The lights are out! And what’s that sound?”
Event – “Oh, no. They’re not my colleagues. Whatever they are now, start shooting!”
. . . There! Having only a small amount of space for each theme, I came to see where communicating the point of the story or game would take significantly more effort than I could provide: some dialogue wound up being about the character’s goals, some about the overall point, and then for anything else I was out of room. As was expressed in the talk on character geometry I’ve referenced throughout this blog, further dimensions require further space to express. You cannot fit a believable three- or four-dimensional person into a bit role with one speech. Likewise, conveying the point of the writing takes more than a few words.
Unless, I suppose, one were to take up poetry. That is its own topic for its own time.
May 6, 2016
This blog is intended to be about writing, and my dimensional character design exercises are a big part of what I have online. There are also pieces where I get ideas out of my head. I’ve referenced thoughts such as those of Sir Terry Pratchett on the point and the plot to try to give them meaning. And I’ve created content I can use into the future, including a list of 100 traits or dimensions for my characters, helpful alongside other tools like the random generators in my Space Trader game, and, of course, nothing’s stopping me from re-using elements like my brief genre generator list. Why not do the inevitable?
It’s time to go meta.
This happens all the time. Sometimes it’s called divergent thinking; or at least I recall the label being applied to the Gordian knot in Alan Moore’s Watchmen. I know divergent thinking as the psychology term for “thinking creatively,” compared against convergent thinking. By divergent, we mean going from one situation out to all its possibilities; by convergent, we mean taking all different sources to bear on one situation.
But as I understand it, going “divergent” doesn’t always mean going “above” or “beyond” or “meta,” in the same way that a rectangle isn’t always a square. By going meta I speak of stepping above the situation. Going above the Gordian knot, we are led to ask why we ever tried to untie it; or, more broadly, why we ever approached a problem on the same level as it was posed.
Puzzles and legends often require a meta thought. You must make winning moves in a series of games, but are you even playing the correct games? You must see what has changed from one image to another, but see nothing; perhaps what has changed is yourself?
People “go meta” in comedy all the time. “A priest, a rabbi, and a minister walk into a bar. The bartender says ‘What is this, some kind of joke?'”
If all of my writings have had “a point,” why don’t I go meta and consider the points?
“Don’t betray all of your friends, or else you’ll be a nasty person and you might die.”
“One fears the unknown.”
“One must change or die.”
“One must grow up or die.”
“One overcomes anger through empathy.”
When I launched my creative posts with my very first character design exercise:
“Pride goeth before a fall.”
“You can’t choose your family.”
“Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”
“Too much light leads to blindness.”
“Humanity is measured by action, not form.”
When I changed gears to get a whole game design out of my head:
“Can the darkness ever truly leave our hearts?”
And at last:
“Violence begets violence.”
In developing my Space Trader game, I have compiled points that the Game Master may find useful in developing game campaigns. Some are already cited above. Others are:
“Dehumanization is the first step in murder.”
“One cannot ignore the interconnectedness of all things.”
“No one tradition is true.”
“Humanity is the cause of its own problems.”
“The best defense is cooperation.”
“Money is the root of all evil.”
“You cannot force others to perfection, least of all by your own definition.”
This happens to be 20 points. Excellent. I’m sure that I could create more variety in content, but what I have works well for a random generator.
So now that I am all glorious and “meta,” having quantized the point of my writing itself, what will I do on this level? Write a character design exercise where I randomize absolutely everything presented above. This I will do in my next post.
November 1, 2015
Last time, I discussed how character backgrounds defined the game experience for me even in a massively violence-focused game such as Unreal Tournament. Having the information exist at all created a living story world.
Now I will try to create some myself; perhaps they will be combatants for a first-person game, yes, but perhaps fighters for a Street Fighter-style one, heroes for any of the countless games out there with hireable characters (Shadowrun comes to mind), or otherwise. If I do it correctly, they’ll be more than just puppets waiting to live and die when a player presses a button.
The point of the game is “Violence begets violence.” Little surprise there, yes?
The most recent game I posted involved a post-apocalyptic world with individuals and gangs of looters, all given personality and equipment. I will use character geometry once more, creating one-dimensional or at most two-dimensional individuals as they will not have airtime to develop themselves further. As noted, I have a table of 100 traits now, and I will choose from them via RANDOM.ORG. I also will choose gender and number of dimensions that way.
Because this game is focused on action, what the characters do can be more important to the viability of the whole game than who they are. Therefore I will use the post-apocalyptic loot tables to select “defining equipment,” the tools of the trade brought into play when you select/meet/hire the character. I get:
One-dimensional character. Female, cruel, crowbar.
Two-dimensional character. Female, hopeless and hungry, axe.
Two-dimensional character. Male, sickly and persistent, metal pipe.
One-dimensional character. Female, damaged, flares.
Two-dimensional character. Male, zealous and insular, rifle.
The traits weren’t supposed to be gloomy themselves, but wow, that looks to be a coherent story right there. For the sake of transparency (not that it matters here in any way), I might note I refined the results a little, throwing out the traits of “dainty” and “bookish” because they didn’t fit with the theme. There are plenty of fighting games out there that have the “cutesy character,” someone who “looks weak” yet obviously is going to blow up the entire battlefield, and that’s not needed here.
With that in mind, I choose to duplicate the naming system I established once and again in the post-apocalyptic world: one descriptor for a nickname, and one normal name. Because I’m silly this way, I’ll derive names from my own Space Trader game, chosen at random. Why not?
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: “Heartless” Titania.
Background: A childhood in the Blasted Zones led Titania to understand survival as coming only at the expense of others. During an early raid on a desert lightning train, she wedged the weather doors partially open on the command crew’s cabin, leading to their death by exposure hours after her raiding party had departed. To this day she uses a crowbar as a tool of both blunt trauma and practical mischief-making.
2-D character: “Ravenous” Aednat.
Traits: Hopeless, hungry.
Background: Like other children of the Blasted Zones, Aednat got used to hardship in the silica pits. Unlike others, the one who came to be known as “Ravenous” got aid in the form of Yaroslava Consortium subdermal tonic implants. Now she outperforms her peers, swinging an axe with the strength of a rad-bull, but at the cost of constant need for nutrition. She will fall the instant she can no longer feed her tech, and she knows this.
2-D character: “Terminal” Proteus.
Traits: Sickly, persistent.
Background: Once buried in the depths of Tavon Mercantile’s research wing on a forced assistantship, Proteus found a way out during open warfare with Yaroslava Consortium. His circulatory system was crippled by a Yaroslava biologic, but he survived by repeated self-administered blood transfusions in the middle of the conflict. He thereafter eschewed high technology and beat his way to freedom with a metal pipe from the facility’s plumbing.
1-D character: “Broken” Emmeline.
Background: Citizens declared Non-Viable are typically exterminated in MilSec camps or exiled to the Blasted Zones, and Emmeline was no different. Miraculously surviving the same MilSec laser that cut down her brother and sister, Emmeline vanished from the waste carts to resurface years later in a street gang. Calling herself and her gang “Broken,” she is known to fight using incendiary flares despite the shocking burns she causes herself.
2-D character: “Iron” Arcadia.
Traits: Zealous, insular.
Background: MilSec task teams trained Arcadia to terminate rad-beasts that breached perimeter. When promoted to Inquisition, he retained the attitude and work ethic, being known at times not to speak a single word when on assignment. “Iron” is expert in using his rifle at range just as he is swinging it in melee, and reportedly was responsible for curtailing Yaroslava Consortium’s operations in United Galle.
. . . Why yes, I took the opportunity to use my Space Trader game’s random company generator and random location generator as well. What are all these places and how do they work? What’s up with the alleged “technology”? I don’t know, and by the science fiction logic of Unreal Tournament I am absolved of having to care. (Aside from being sure to maintain continuity.)
The key things are that they enrich the world with background and support a healthy plot. Games are culture, as I’ve expanded once already in another violent scenario, and game designers have an obligation to think of what they (designers or games) teach the players. Here we have five characters who would perpetuate violence if left to their own devices, and it sounds very much like the world will lead them nowhere else. Hopefully they are interesting enough that the player will want to bring them to a better resolution.
October 14, 2015
I love storytelling. I feel that other people should care about storytelling, too, because it is so very important to us: it is a fundamental substrate of human existence. A lesson I learned from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman is that a story is a metaphor for life and life is a metaphor for a story. All our forms of entertainment, including the modern invention of videogames, are culture, and “culture” is just shorthand for (among other things) “who we are, what we do, and what we enjoy.” Stepping sideways into music, there are always the words of Amanda Palmer in her Ukulele Anthem:
You may think my approach is simple-minded and naïve
Like if you want to change the world then why not quit and feed the hungry
But people for millennia have needed music to survive
And that is why I promised John [Lennon] that I will not feel guilty
This sort of reasoning contributes to my general enjoyment of all sorts of games regardless of format. (Though I am aware that each medium has its own qualities that may be employed to good result in the artistic creation. But such brings its own discussion.) For years, when broaching this topic with people I would refer them to my videogame collection: most everything I owned was there because of the storytelling. This included an oddity or two . . . which will come in two paragraphs as the main reason I am posting today.
But before I get there, first let me note the timeframe of this collection. Around the turn of the century/millenium, videogame technology had advanced to the point where real storytelling was possible. I took particular note of Looking Glass Studios’ Thief (fan site here). Years prior, in seeing early first-person games and all their straightforward violence (see Wolfenstein 3D and Doom), I’d imagined the development of a game where enemies had personality, a real life. Your actions might be violent in the end, such as assassination, but this hypothetical game would have computer-controlled characters do such things as sleep, talk, and get angry. They’d HAVE background, instead of BEING background. Then Thief came along and did exactly so (minus much assassination).
The feeling that the world is not “just background,” but that it is alive and filled with living, breathing people, is what many gamers such as renowned author Sir Terry Pratchett enjoyed in the Thief series. I agreed. Thus it was that I bought Unreal Tournament for the story.
It sounds impossible. This is the first-person shooter that made “frag” into a (gaming-) household word. And to this day I have never met another human being who realized that Unreal Tournament HAS a story at all. But I did. Why? And how? Simple: I was the only human being I knew who bothered to read the character backgrounds presented before each match. Thus I saw that the world of Unreal Tournament is one filled with living, breathing people; one where the enemies have personality, a real life. There is even a little mystery about who and what the final enemy of the game is supposed to be. I liked this, and I felt that the background enriched my experience as I played through the high-quality first-person frag fest.
Ken Levine, during the development of the game Bioshock (which is very violent but also has extensive story), discussed how the goal was to ensure the game worked on three levels. On one, the story could be ignored beyond “okay, so, that’s the boss” and it would be a good action game for people who wanted it. On another, the story would be integrated well enough that gamers could observe “oh, I see what motivates these people” intermixed with the gameplay. Then on yet another, of course, the story would be there for people to devour in its entirety, pouring over each log and line to understand the world.
The fact that a batch of “mindless enemies” can be so interesting leads me to now, where I’ve decided to run with this and develop a story world (the same thing as a game world) based around fighter background information. Part brainstorming, part game design, and part just having fun as always. And I will do it in my next post.
Following along inexorably from that last post, I and my associates in Megara Entertainment have brought our Kickstarter project to live-ness on the internet. I could have said “to life,” naturally (and grammatically), but granting the project such is the purpose of the funding. The project is “live.” Perhaps backers will bring it to life.
Yet I find myself speaking of contradictions once more: backers have already brought it to life. Whereas our project for The Way of the Tiger was funded in less than 48 hours, our current project has been funded in less than 45 minutes:
This is excellent and will allow us to focus on our main goals, which are to get extra funding to afford the needed art. Any such funding is a challenge when selling books, as discussed already by Dave Morris. Now I am dashing across the internet to talk with everyone, thank everyone, and catch up again with everyone when everyone does something behind my back. Business as usual for Kickstarter.
Readers will have noticed by now that I post about Kickstarter on this blog. Among other things. But all that work with Megara Entertainment on Arcana Agency: The Thief of Memories, The Way of the Tiger, and Lone Wolf – The Board Game lends itself to posting. Among other things, they’ve consistently been my only posts with images.
So today we have presented the world with the “soft launch” of our imminent Kickstarter project, Fabled Lands: The Serpent King’s Domain. Yet again we are adapting and expanding a classic gamebook series, and this time it looks like I have the pleasure of working with the entire original team of authors and illustrators.
See this link:
As I wrote over there,
Fabled Lands is a gamebook series, that special sort of solo role-playing where you read a story paragraph, make a decision about what you would like the hero to do next, and turn to some other page to read the results. This series is the first in history to be non-linear: players proceed at will back and forth between books, and each book represents not a story but a region. The story is up to the player to tell.
You can strive to overcome villains and monsters, or spend the whole game as a merchant trader plying the seas. Ordinarily, this sort of description would mean an open-world videogame to tax your computer’s processors; but Fabled Lands is a BOOK ON PAPER.
This I think is noteworthy. It’s in much the same sense as that essay I wrote on gamebooks: playing these games, I found myself struck by the implementation of gaming principles I knew to exist in videogames. I felt the freedom of choice and consequence that comes from walking around an electronic overworld and entering the dungeons I wished. One might ask, then, why I’d play a print Fabled Lands gamebook when I could just play a videogame; I’d have multiple answers, but one, inevitably, would be that I’d play both. Why wouldn’t I want to play all “well-programmed” games? The medium doesn’t change the admiration.
As before, the purpose behind this whole post is to announce how I shall be busy come next month. In fact, I’ve been busy for quite some time.
Though it’s amusing to consider this further too. Just recently I attended the wedding of a friend from the Lesser Known Gods, hinted briefly in my about page and my writing samples page. In speaking with his gaming friends, I was given a new name for all my work on Kickstarter: producer.
Producer? Sounds like I need to look up a job description or two. But yes, I have spent months dividing tasks into logical groups, managing people, maintaining a focus on a goal or vision for a project, raising awareness and funds, and, in the end, writing a lot of reports. If that’s a management position of some sort, then I suppose that explains why I’ve been so busy. Especially when no one here actually reports to me.
But as stated it’s generally been a pleasure. I hope this gaming news is of interest, as with all the others.