Tag Archives: roleplay

What in the World? Researching Settings

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Apologies for my recent absence. I don’t really have an excuse. Life just gets short on spoons occasionally. (For those who aren’t aware of Spoon Theory, I can’t recommend reading it highly enough. It isn’t only applicable to those with illnesses.)

Anyway, I’m making an effort to get back in the saddle. This is largely prompted by the upcoming Nine Worlds Convention – a three-day celebration of all things geek. My experience of conventions is comparatively limited but I had an absolute ball at the World Fantasy Convention back in 2013 so I’m hugely looking forward to this. Not least because I’ve got myself involved in speaking on a panel discussion about the use of research in world-building.

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Obviously there’s a HUGE amount to say on this subject and I’ve said much of it already on this blog. Important points include:

  • Building on existing cultures to give your audience an easy and textured hook into your setting
  • Picking something small (such as currency) and extrapolating from there
  • Stealing random ideas from history, because it’s frequently weirder than fiction
  • Avoiding jarring your audience out of immersion by Not Getting Things Wrong

The context of this particular discussion, however, revolves specifically around building worlds that the audience will interact with, be it in computer games, LARP, or collaborative storytelling. I’ve been asked to get involved due to London Under, and the research that was done there to bring local history into the game.

One of my aims with the London Under setting was to blur the line between reality and fantasy as much as possible, in order to bring my audience deeper into the world. To that end, I tied in the history of the immediate area as well as news stories. Many of the fantastical plots stemmed from a real-life event. The building of the Thames Tideway Tunnel, for example, became a major point of gang territorial warfare; the Dutch Elm Disease of the late 1960s was revealed to be a piece of biological terrorism committed by one sect of dryads against another. I wanted people to walk down a street, or read a newspaper, weeks later and know something about it – partly true, partly fantastical, and occasionally difficult to tell where the line was.

There’s an obvious problem with this, which is the issue of timeliness. Using current news stories means that the setting and plot has a very high risk of dating quickly. Anything based on, for example, Thatcherism feels old fashioned now and that sense of the old-fashioned will carry over in the audience’s mind into your world setting. On the other hand, if done well, it gives your world an extra dimension of historical reality – one you don’t need to explain in detail because the audience will fill in the gaps for you. And that unconscious gap-filling means they are more emotionally invested in your setting. They understand something about it, have brought it closer to their own world, and it’s more real to them as a result.

To be honest, I’ve no idea what the panel discussion will end up covering on the day. Do come along and find out! My dear friend Dr. Nick will, in a weird quirk of coincidence, also be taking part (doctorate in naval architecture =  really good at designing spaceships and dirigibles), as will Jeanette Ng and Russell Smith. Let me know if you think there are any other points or questions that ought to be raised. And please come say hi – it would be lovely to see you there. 🙂

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Sing, O Muse, the Wrath of Achilles: Roll Initiative

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This week is the blog’s fourth anniversary so, to celebrate, I’m going to combine two of my favourite things: ancient epics and roleplaying games. This is because the common thread between them is part of what the blog is all about – collaborative storytelling.

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Roleplaying games happen when a bunch of people get together in a room, usually with drinks and snacks, and tell a story together about heroic deeds and terrible monsters. Or sometimes the terrible monsters are the heroes, if you’re playing World of Darkness.

Ancient epics were told when a bunch of people got together in a room, usually with drinks and snacks, to listen to a story about heroic deeds and terrible monsters. Or sometimes the terrible monsters were the heroes, if you’re listening to Beowulf.

You see where I’m going with this, right?

Kill Screen wrote a fantastic article about this and you should totally go and read it. What they didn’t talk about is how this is spreading out into a wider culture, thanks to modern technology.

The nature of a public is not one-way. It is not the provision of material to be consumed. The nature of a public is a two-way, three-way, multiple-way conversation that’s reciprocal, that requires listening as well as speaking. ~ Matthew Stadler

Twitter provides fantastic examples of writers who use the online platform to build a dialogue with their readers, as well as changing the content to better suit the medium. Joanne Harris, for example, tells a story on Twitter at least once a month, via multiple tweets, using the hashtag #Storytime and encourages her followers to give her ideas for the next one.

Back in 2014, Neil Gaiman ran a Twitter-based project called A Calendar of Tales, during which he asked his Twitter followers to suggest a single inspiring sentence for each month of the year, selected twelve to write a short story around, and then asked his followers for illustrative artwork. The results were a beautiful anthology, the collaborative work of an author and his readers. Then there’s places like Wattpad, where writers post chapter by chapter and readers can leave comments or feedback. There’s blogs like Andrew Knighton‘s, where people can comment or even request themes for his Friday flash fiction.

And, of course, there’s a rise in mainstream culture of SF&F stories which brings a whole new audience into the conversation. Stories about heroic deeds and terrible monsters. Or sometimes the terrible monsters are the heroes, if you’re watching Deadpool.

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Fantastical stories are ancient. The Epic of Gilgamesh, with monsters and quests for magic items, is over four thousand years old. Communal story telling existed back when (and because) people couldn’t read or write. When people start to panic about the decline of books in the face of advancing technology, this is the thing to remember. Look how far storytelling hasn’t come. We tell the same types of tales in the same types of ways, and have done for a very very long time. It’s how we’re wired to tell stories. The technology we create will inevitably serve to continue that.

It’s just that, sometimes, there’s also dice.

The Onus of Responsibility for Imagination

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Erudite pizza

Erudite pizza

This post stems largely from a conversation I had in Pizza Hut this week. Yes, erudite stuff can happen in Pizza Hut.

Different creative mediums place different responsibilities on both creator and audience, depending on their level of interaction. My writing friend comes from a theatrical background; I come from a roleplay one. This means that our assumptions about our readers are subtly but importantly different.

You use imagination or imagination uses you.” ~ RK

In roleplay, the audience is actively involved in the storytelling. They carry the vast majority of the responsibility for creating the illusion that they then enjoy.They use their imaginations. In theatre, however, the onus is entirely on the play. The audience’s imagination brings the story to them, rather than them taking their imaginations to the story. If the play doesn’t hook the imagination in the first place, the audience won’t come out to meet it. They’ll walk away. The responsibility for imagination lies with the writer.

And in writing? Well, it’s the same. I can take inspiration from the thousands of stories that unfold in the roleplay arena, and the oh-so-human characters that are played out, but I have to remember that when it comes to the page the responsibility for imagination is on my shoulders.

That said (and I’m going to segue seamlessly here), I went to an interactive play a couple of weeks ago where the responsibility was very definitely extended to the audience. You can see a full review of it by my friend Peat Carrington here so I won’t go into details. The point is that there wasn’t a story unless the audience filled in the gaps. It started as an interesting tour of the local area, with details of an historical business that the theatre company were trying to revive. The story was the recent death of the company’s re-founder, and her relationships with the various tour guides, but it was dropped in as very subtle hints along the way. The audience definitely had to bring their imaginations rather than the other way around.

The other thing about that particular play – and again, this might be my roleplay background colouring things – was the difference between the expectations built at the beginning and the ending delivered, which links into my previous blog post on causal chains. The title was A First Class Death. It’s not just me that assumes this is a murder mystery, right? Because it opened with a walking tour, and kept dropping subtle hints about this recently deceased woman, I was prepped for another murder or at least an attempt. I kept looking behind me for dodgy types waiting to rush the crowd, and wouldn’t get too close to the tour guide in case he had a gun in his pocket. By the time the tour part was over, I was properly on edge.

Turns out the woman died of cancer. This was just her wake. No murder, no mystery. In consequence, I left the show feeling rather flat. Taken without context it was a very interesting and thought-provoking look at the trappings of death. But because I brought my imagination and then received nothing for it, it didn’t deliver. So where did the responsibility for imagination actually lie, in that example? Well, ultimately the buck in a creative work always stops with the writer. If, as a writer, you want to ask the audience to put some effort in, you’d better make sure that effort is rewarded in a manner that fits the expectations you’ve raised.

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Why Do We Tell Stories?

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This is a question that I’m constantly drawn back to. In fact, I’m currently putting together a research proposal looking at exactly that – why the same old mythical figures and monsters continue to fascinate us down the ages and changing cultures. What is it in our imaginations that is so comprehensively hooked by the fantastical?

I can’t answer that for the species (at least, not until I’ve done the years of research). For myself, though, it’s always been a place that I could go which promised brighter, better things. Challenges that I could equate with my own humdrum difficulties, and heroes I could learn from to conquer them. More than that, though, it showed worlds where anything was possible.

I’m lucky. I don’t have a serious physical disability, or a broken home, or any of the really tragic common problems. I was ill throughout my teens and for some time after, but it didn’t stop me from doing anything beyond feeling self-conscious, outside the social norm. Like many creative people with over-active imaginations, I fight a war of attrition with depression but it isn’t crippling. I function. For the majority of the time, I even function happily. Mostly because of stories.

There’s a reason I’m sharing this. It’s come to my attention more and more that people just encountering these sorts of problems for themselves don’t realise how many others are in the same boat. So, to all of you just succumbing to the tentacles of depression or anxiety, or dealing with a malfunction in your bodies, please remember this. You aren’t alone. I know it feels like it but you aren’t. And, if nothing else, stories can help you believe that.

I’m going to leave you with a final piece of self-indulgence. There was a competition last year to tell a real-life story in six verses, with each verse in a different format that stood alone, but where the whole gave a greater meaning. This is my rather crooked attempt to explain why I tell stories.


1. HE TAUGHT ME TO FEAR

The breakfast crumbs make patterns on the wood.
The doctor’s here to tell me I am ill.

A house call in this day and age. Not good.
I watch the toast crumb patterns on the wood.

2. YOU TAUGHT ME TO DREAM

We sit by the fire,
Talking dungeons and dragons.
You make me believe.

3. THEY TAUGHT ME TO STAND

The soldier falls in battle, wounded sore,
Eyes closed against the final stroke. None lands.
The lord is there defending, kills the foe,
And then the hurt is checked by gentle hands.
“‘Tis nothing but a scratch. Come, up you get,
And forward march. We shall prevail yet.”

4. SHE TAUGHT ME TO DANCE

Golden skinned from a sunny life on the road
Young head on old shoulders, as open minded as a field
Permanently curious without restraint or fear
Smile that never dimmed, heart that never closed
You loved her. Everybody did.

5. WORDS TAUGHT ME TO FLY

Follow the dark-blue ink road down the rabbit hole;
Sit in the corner and send out your waking soul.
Hans Christian Anderson, Tolkien and Dunsany –
Building the worlds that will always be part of me.

Building the worlds that will let me be free.

6. I TAUGHT ME TO LIVE

by mapping
corners of
myself I
am made whole

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One Tale, Many Voices: using stories to build a community

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Following on from my guest post for Mr. Knighton, and the thing about creative ownership earlier this week, I wanted to explore the idea of communities based on storytelling a bit further. It is, after all, the fundamental reason that we tell stories – to communicate to an audience. So understanding how that works is an important foundation to storytelling in general.

The role of oral tradition

You too could be Brad Pitt

You too could be Brad Pitt

Before literacy was commonplace, storytelling was done via oral tradition. A bard (or whatever they called themselves at that time and place) spoke to an audience, passing on tales via listening and memory. It was a moment of communal gathering and shared experience, and that dates back a very long time indeed. For a recent example, though, the kids’ cargo cult in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome is good.

The Homeric Epics were originally formed from aural traditions, with a specific underlying purpose relating to building a community spirit. At the time, the Greeks existed in independent city states that frequently warred between themselves. But a greater threat existed round the continent in the shape of the Persians – a unified empire with an ambitious king and an impressive army. By sharing stories of a similarly unified Greece who defeated a legendary Eastern opponent (in this case, Troy), it was hoped that a sense of a national community would be instilled despite the more recent history of inter-city wars.

Granted, that’s a fairly extreme example of using stories to build a sense of community, but it makes the point. A shared tradition of stories, told to a gathered audience, serves to strengthen the bonds between them.

Oral versus written history

As Western culture moved from oral to written tradition, storytelling began to move from a group activity to an individual one. It also began to segregate the audience by education and class. The sense of community that had been engendered by oral storytelling underwent a fundamental change. It also meant that story structure itself underwent a change.

Oral tradition has a number of significant traits which exist to help the narrator remember the entire tale. Repeated phrases, lists of names, stock scenes – these all were a standard feature of memorised stories. With written texts, however, none of that is strictly necessary and so the style of narration shifted. The focus now was on entertainment via words alone, rather than performance.

For a long time, it also meant that different types of stories were recorded. Given the segregation by class and education, texts catered to the tastes of those who could read and afford to buy the written word. Anything that was interesting only to poor communities – rather than rich individuals – was left unrecorded. So not only was oral tradition under siege, its replacement did nothing for those that it had primarily helped.

Communal storytelling today

Fear of the unknown, helplessness and loss of identity

Fear of the unknown, helplessness and loss of identity

We’re now, according to Walter Ong, in the age of secondary orality – a time in which oral storytelling is consciously reliant on written material. I’ve talked about this a little bit before when I covered the Gutenberg Parenthesis, but it’s important here because Tom Pettitt’s conclusion is all about the growing online community in which stories are told by secondary orality to a community that is no longer confined by geography. The community has, essentially, become worldwide (it’s also been called the global village and is a fairly hefty sociology subject).

…rapid communication with large groups of people in a speed that would resemble oral storytelling, without having to share the same physical space with your audience.   ~ Secondary Orality in Microblogging, Liliana Bounegrou

Because the stories being told are written they can be referred back to, cited and built upon. The Slender Man myth is the best modern example I know of a community-created and told story, developed through secondary orality. It links into key fears that are shared by a community, highlights them as a concern and binds the community together against those fears. We’ve almost come full circle.

As a roleplayer, of course, communal storytelling is a fairly major part of my life. I regularly get to see the power of stories bringing people together in a tight-knit community that relies on shared narrated experiences for bonding. I have to say that seeing it in action – all those lives and imaginations working together to create something communal – is actually quite powerful. The uninitiated might only see geeks in funny clothes waving rubber swords around but there’s a very real kind of magic going on beneath the surface.

That’s not all, folks

As evidenced by the littering of links, particularly in the last part, this is a huge subject and one which I’m not properly equipped to explore. I know almost nothing about sociology or anthropology, both of which are major factors in the function of storytelling. But it is something I find fascinating so, if any of you know more, please do share. I’d really like to learn.

World Building with Microscope

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I spent this weekend building worlds with Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Knighton, Mr. and Mrs. Doctor Nick, and the raptor. We used the structure set out in the game Microscope, which I’ve mentioned before, and it was brilliant. You don’t get any real level of detail but you do get a fascinating and organic history with plenty of lightbulb moments and ideas you would never have come up with alone. Here’s how it works:

STEP 1: Decide what genre you want your world to be in, and a single-sentence description.
Example: ‘space opera – The Second Great and Bountiful Human Empire’. (Doctor Who reference for the geeks).

STEP 2: Work out your palette. This is a list of things that either definitely will or definitely won’t be included in the world. Don’t pick obvious things – try to make this interesting so you have some odd restrictions to work around. Everyone gets to pick one thing per round. If someone passes, the palette is set at the end of that round and you don’t have another round.
Example: psychic powers out, lack of resources in.

STEP 3: Work out your start and end points, and decide whether they’re light or dark (marked by an empty or filled circle). I’d recommend sticking with light endings where possible. It seems to make the game more fun. Don’t worry, you’ll get plenty of opportunity to add darkness along the way.
Example: Start – humans found the first colony (light), End – evil empire overthrown (light).

STEP 4: Time is divided into three different types – Ages (era of history, long periods with a general theme), Events (happen within Ages, are a particular instance), Scene (part of an event, which answers a specific question about that event by going into detail). Each type has to be either light or dark but they don’t have to be the same as the type they’re nested under.
Example: everwalker writes the Age of Cultural Renaissance; Mr. Knighton writes an Event within it where the slam-rock band Simian Zim destroys an ancient orbital memorial during their farewell concert; Doctor Nick writes a Scene that explains how they explode something in space – by requesting an entire planet’s atmosphere in their rider.

In Step 4, everyone writes down an Age and decides whether it’s light or dark. These Ages do not have to be written in chronological order. Nor can you ever tell someone that their idea doesn’t work, or would work better another way, unless the idea directly counteracts the palette. This is a game about building on ideas, not turning them down. As the raptor put it, it’s the ‘Yes, and…’ approach.
Example: Mr. Knighton writes the Age of Cultural Renaissance; Doctor Nick writes the Age of the 7th Intergalactic War and places that after Mr. Knighton’s; everwalker writes the Age of the Theocracy of the Eschatalogical Church and places it before Mr. Knighton’s.

STEP 5: Now you start the proper rounds. The above was mostly prep work. One person calls the theme for the round (each round, the person who decides the theme is the next player to the left). The theme can be anything – a concept, an individual, a city, whatever.
Examples: war, the Legend of Dazani (who/whatever that is), uplifted monkeys, the planet of Hive 9, etc.

STEP 6: Everyone takes it in turns to write an Age/Event/Scene card which relates in some way to that theme. The theme-caller gets two goes, one at the beginning and one at the end.
Example: in the theme of war, Mrs. Knighton writes an Event in which a last alliance of men and space whales halt the invasion of the evil empire.

STEP 7: When the round is over, the person to the right of the theme-caller decides what the Legacy of that round is. It can be anything at all, provided it relates to at least one of the cards that was written during that round. They can then add one more Age/Event/Scene which touches on any of the Legacies currently available (it doesn’t have to be their own).
Example: At the end of the war themed round, the raptor decides that space whales are the Legacy (based on Mrs. Knighton’s alliance Event). He adds an Event much earlier in the timeline where space whales are hunted for food by starving colonists.

STEP 8: Next round. The theme-caller is now the next player to the left. Repeat 5, 6 and 7 until you’re bored or confused.

We found that with 5+ players, one set of rounds was plenty before we both ran out of room on the table for more index cards, and started getting confused about what had already happened. With 4 players the game went a lot faster and we got two sets of rounds in.

It’s important to remember that an Age/Event/Scene can go anywhere at all within the timeline, including under the start and end points. For example, our start point was humans founding the first colony, and the first event under that was the Catholic Church funding the launch of the transport ship. It’s something which happened within that era. The game does strongly advise you to avoid time travel and immortality, otherwise this whole process tends to get tied in knots. Also, remember that an Age is many many years. Any named characters are highly unlikely to appear in more than one Age, although their descendants totally can.

Incidentally, as with all writing, word choice is important. ‘Theocracy’, for example, instantly gives a much more detailed view of what’s going on than ‘Empire’. By naming a planet ‘Hive 9’, the alien race was immediately identified as some kind of bug. Really think about the implications your word choices have. This is an excellent habit to get into for all writing, and Microscope is a very good way of highlighting why.

This one's for Mr. Knighton

This one’s for Mr. Knighton

The really interesting thing is how an event added near the end of the game could completely subvert the whole of history as we’d previously imagined it. Space whales, for example, made regular appearances in our game and usually had the very raw end of the deal. It wasn’t until the final round that a card got placed near the beginning of the timeline explaining that they were in fact a slave race under the control of the evil empire, and rebelling against their masters to help the humans.

Also interesting to note is that this is not really a cooperative world building structure. Cooperation implies discussion, and that shouldn’t happen here. You can’t decline or influence someone’s input – you just have to roll with it. If someone builds a city, you can’t tell them no and you can’t put in something that contradicts it. You can, however, have it burn down later in the timeline. It isn’t competitive, it’s just accepting. And that’s how you get the weird bits of awesome, and the lightbulb moments that bring them all together.

Don’t go into it expecting to write the results, though. That puts a lot of pressure on the game, risks causing tension over the non-negotiable play aspect, and restricts your opportunities for coming up with random genius. Be content to come out the other side with a couple of hours of fun under your belt, maybe some inspiration, and – if Mr. Knighton has anything to do with it – a new appreciation for space monkey pirates.

When Characters Rebel: Losing Control Of Your Creations

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Frankenstein's_monster_(Boris_Karloff) There are two schools of thought on character independence. Some pretty renowned authors say that their characters can still take them by surprise, and they like it when that happens. (I think, from memory, that Robin Hobbs is one such.) Others say that it’s nonsense because the whole story is coming from the author’s head, so how can those creations take their creator by surprise? They tend to attribute this to poor planning of the story.

Andrew Knighton recently wrote a good blog post about this, in which he emphasized that the character comes from the writer and therefore, even if they do something that surprises you, it’s still something that originated in your head. I totally agree with that. But the subconscious is a strange and wibbly thing. Just because something comes from you doesn’t mean you were expecting it. ‘My character made me do it’ isn’t an excuse to shift the blame onto another pair of shoulders – it’s an indication that you got deep inside your character’s psyche without realising it. That’s great. You just unlocked another level of personality. Now you have a responsibility to properly explore and map it, so you can use it to your advantage later and not get sideswiped in the same way again.

At the moment, however, I’m engaged in developing a bunch of characters that absolutely will do things that didn’t come from my head. I’m running a LARP game called London Under in a few weeks, and currently writing up all the character briefs for the 40-odd people involved. They will then take these briefs and, on the night, do things I couldn’t possibly predict. That is both very exciting – in that I’ll get to see a bunch of stories that I could never have come up with alone – and mildly terrifying, in that I won’t have control over these characters. What kinds of horror or beauty will they enact? What holes will they kick in my carefully planned stories? I’ve no way of knowing.

That very real loss of control throws the supposed independence of paper characters into sharp relief. Imagine what would happen if you let someone else dictate how your creations behaved. Would they do the same things as you? Of course not, there’s a different brain in the driving seat. No matter how many surprises your characters throw at you – and if it gets beyond a certain number, then you probably need to go back to the beginning and do a proper character interview to make sure you understand what’s going on – they still have to do what you tell them, because you’re the only one who can tell them to do anything. You’re never really out of control.