Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Runaway Train

I have friends who compare running RPGs to hanging onto the front of a freight train and trying to quickly lay down track before they derail completely. I find that this comparison is only true for people who are just starting out writing this type of game. After a few sessions, the GM will get better at writing stories that aren’t so rigid and strict. In fact, people smarter than I have written very informative articles on how to structure an adventure for maximum playability.

When I first started writing, I very much over-thought the whole process. I had a complicated array of if/then “switches.” Completing quest A would yield different results if the players had previously completed quest B, and still different results if they'd completed quest C and B together. In time I learned that I was exerting myself for no meaningful gain. Work smarter, not harder, as the saying goes. Anyway, wasn't this supposed to be fun? Programming a game in a word processor is laborious and draining. Many times, content was skipped completely, meaning that I'd wasted effort. Something had to change!

This is another big departure for regular writing vs. RPG writing; the fact that stuff can get skipped. Only in an author's wildest nightmares might a whole chapter get overlooked. So much character development and plot, gone. Just like that. How could a story retain its shape? How could you have a finale? What if somehow the finale was skipped? This is why RPG writers have to employ something called nonlinear writing.

It's not as strange as it sounds. If you've ever thought about the process of writing a script for a movie, it merits comparison.

A few years ago I was completely in love with the idea of becoming a big-shot Hollywood film director. Because my obsessions are a little more “advanced” than some people, I like to learn everything about something before I move forward. During my research (a fancy way of saying watching every “making-of” on every DVD ever made), I learned that most movies and television shows are shot completely out of sequence. That is, the script is carved up into discrete, filmable chunks and then shot out of order. Lord of the Rings is famously known (by me anyway) to have filmed the very last shot in the whole movie during the first few weeks of principle photography. The actors hardly knew each other at that point, and now they had to act as if they had just finished throwing the ring into the Crack of Doom.

"Was your name Shane or Sean?"
Like movies, it helps if the author can think of the story as a series of discreet scenes. Unlike movies, RPG scripts are not written as a whole and then carved up later. It's much easier to have a strong overarching narrative that connects separate “scenes” together into a whole. This way the players can visit the scenes in almost any order and still get a grip on the overall story. So what if they skip the fight with the cave troll that was supposed to happen early on? The GM can just make it come in later and use it for the last fight of the game. Problem solved.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Movie Review: Cowboys and Aliens

As I have done in the past, I've decided to review a movie. To quote myself in my review of Daybreakers: Perhaps the most prevalent and popular form of writing today is the kind we see in movies. While many people simply "hate books," nearly everybody watches movies.”

Cowboys and Aliens is a 2011 movie directed by the same guy who made both Iron Man films. It earned a 44% from Rotten Tomatoes, which means it's quite rotten. It also means that it's rated lower than Daybreakers (67%) but much better than 2005's Doom (20%).

Remember his name? I sure don't.
I like to think that the title of the movie was invented when a parent watched his children play with action figures. When I was a kid, I'm pretty sure I made Batman fight aliens. Maybe they'll make that into a movie!

On the surface, the film seems to offer everything I like about Summer movies: Action. Explosions. Harrison Ford. What went wrong? Films that mash up two genres are rare but not unheard of. According to this series of captioned photographs, “[Bladerunner was a] sci-fi and hardboiled film noir; Alien was a haunted house movie [in] outer space.” So it's not like this kind of thing is new.

The problem lies in the way the movie was created, it doesn't blend two films; it is two films. Like dysfunctional siblings, these two movies fight it out to be dominant almost the whole time. In the beginning, it's a fairly boring Western starring James Bond. Halfway through, there's a transition from Western into a pretty serious sci-fi flick. Then for the rest of the movie each genre ruined the suspension of disbelief for the other. Worse still, I got flashbacks of Krull.

If you're not familiar with Krull, watch this trailer.

Like most films with a bloated budget (Matrix 2 and 3, any Star Wars prequel), character development takes the backseat to what Hollywood executives would excitedly refer to as “the Action.” Unfortunately this means that there's no character development of any kind in the beginning of the movie. James Bond wakes up with no memory, so we as the audience are left to solve this “mystery” for ourselves as the film progresses. This is not a J.J. Abrams mystery that leaves the audience with an “I MUST KNOW” desire. This is a slow, plodding and ultimately unimportant side plot that seems to get in the way of the Action.

This explosion is more important than the characters.

In fact, this veiled "mystery" trickles down throughout the entire production (Spoilers ahead). Why are the aliens abducting people if they're only visiting earth to harvest gold? If Olivia Wilde is an alien who can take the form of a human, why can't the other aliens? Is she the last of her race? How come the Indians speak exclusively Chiricahua but can clearly understand English? Was this all an excuse to give Harrison Ford a Chewbacca-like Indian sidekick? Why do the aliens seem so evil?

In a weird twist of fate, the writers of the movie tried to make an ensemble cast of characters, but they don't take the time to develop any of them beyond an initial archetypical doodle, and this includes the main character.

The main character: Jake Lonergan, a mysterious amnesiac who turns out to be just an outlaw with James Bond's prowess for hand-to-hand combat.

Harrison Ford's character: A rich cattle rancher who learns something about himself through the eyes of a young boy while chasing down the aliens.

Olivia Wilde: A mysterious young woman who looks like she wears pajamas for the whole film.

The Preacher: A caricature of what Hollywood thinks ministers in the wild west were like, except he's both Catholic and Christian, but with some distinct humanist vibes.

...And three or four other people whose names you won't know until you read the credits on IMDB!

Probin' time.
This movie was basically a 1.5 million dollar Freddy Wong video, except without the fun Freddy Wong bits. Instead of watching this, watch True Grit and District 9, two much better films that do their genres justice.

The Good:
Great explosions, aliens, effects
James Bond's wrist gadget

The Bad:
The plot is boring
The movie is never as cool as the title made it sound
The characters are undefined and shallow as a hastily-dug mafia grave
The end was much like Krull
It didn't mash up the two genres well
This list of mistakes

Overall: 2/5

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Master is a Slave

This image is blatant pandering to
my sister in law

Continuing from my previous post, another thing that makes RPGs so different from board games is the notion of a Game Master. I realize that phrase might make some people shudder away in disgust and exclaim, “that's just too nerdy for me!” but I implore those people to continue reading anyway.

As far as I can think, there's nothing quite like having a game master (or GM) running the game. In video games the player is limited by the bounds of the game itself. If you walk to the furthest reaches of the map, you'll find an invisible wall that blocks the way. Books and movies are different because the reader or viewer is effectively on rails for the entire duration. The experience is passive instead of active. This doesn't make it better or worse; just different. The audience has no control of what does or doesn't happen on the screen; they're simply along for the ride.

Meanwhile, sitting at a table with a person who is the author, narrator, voice and personality of the characters is something to behold, especially if it's done well. If a player decides to travel to the farthest reaches of the planet, it's the GM's responsibility to have something suitably surprising waiting there for him to find. This is why I keep stressing the importance of imagination in games. If imagination is limitless, the world is limitless.

Now you can start to see where the difficulty of creating this kind of game can be. In a previous blog I mentioned that RPGs come in books. Most of the time a portion of the book is devoted to explaining the world (also called a “setting”). Essentially a setting is an elaborate list of Do's and Don'ts. A setting could take place in the Wild West, except with strange and grungy magic. It could be like Men in Black. It could be based on My Little Pony.
This guy knows what I'm talking about.
However, people are wild and unruly creatures who desire above all things to get their own way. This was one of the first things I learned when I jumped headfirst into running my first game. It can be frightening; I had spent hours trying to anticipate what a group of three players might do inside a single tavern. Within two minutes of playing they were already doing things I hadn't thought of. This is something I think every writer should experience just once; people like to break things. Look at what happened within a few weeks of the new Star Wars game coming out; people got inside the game and found ways to break it, giving themselves an advantage.

You see, when a person sits down to write a story, they have time to ponder and caress their words and characters. They can carefully sketch and sculpt their style and narrative to suit a certain purpose. This is one of the reasons it takes so long to write things. Compare this to RPGs, where the writer can prep as much as they want but still be fairly unprepared for the game. It doesn't matter how much time an author spent describing the perfect woman; when suddenly asked by a player if she's ever killed a man, all preconceived ideas are quickly called into question and the author has to stop and think. It's this very unpredictability that makes the game both a blessing and a curse.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A New Year, A New Topic

I was recently asked if I was going to continue writing on this blog. “Of course,” I said. “Why wouldn't I?”
“Oh,” replied my sister, “because you haven't updated in a long time. I was wondering if you'd just abandoned it.”
“But I'm not writing anything,” I said, “except maybe adventures for our roleplaying games.”
“Why don't you just write about those?” she asked. It was a good question. Why don't I?

It's not like my content would change much. Devout readers will remember that I like writing about sci-fi and fantasy. It's not a surprise to hear that all of my gaming sessions are based in similar universes (that is, either fantasy or zombie mayhem, which is kinda sci-fi-ish). I've written two (crappy) novels that were set in a comfortable place between the two genres, but I hesitate to call it Science-Fantasy because another guy has basically defined that genre as something else altogether.

This is more my speed; bizarre.
But where should I start with a blog about roleplaying? There are already several blogs devoted to the mechanics of RPGs, and other still devoted to nothing but adventure creation. I don't really want a blow-by-blow account of a night's events, as I typically find those uninteresting. Because this blog is supposed to be my way of helping random strangers overcome writing hurdles, I think it'd be best if I covered the things I do from the perspective of an aspiring writer. Hopefully this will broaden the appeal of such a blog, ensuring that it can be read by people who might not care much about this kind of entertainment, but also by those who do.

Topic 1: What the eff is a roleplaying game?

Around December of 2010 I was regularly meeting with some friends from math. You can read the account for yourself in more detail. Long story short, I wound up trying to create and run a system of my design (read: poorly conceived) and play a rudimentary adventure with my friends. Well, most of those math friends only lasted as long as the class itself, so at the end of the semester I found myself writing stories for some new players, most of whom were directly related to me.

A few months and one systems change later, I found myself slightly more experienced with this kind of game. I had played board games in the past but I had never been a huge fan (note: this opinion has changed significantly since July 2011, but that's a topic for another blog).

To say that a roleplaying game is like a board game is to do them both injustice. Board games have very clear-cut rules and goals, and typically one player wins. They're made to appeal to a fairly broad audience; they're play-tested rigorously before production, which itself can be expensive. Roleplaying games are typically based around a system of rules, which can vary wildly depending on preference. They're written by one or more people, they're also play-tested, but these games are mostly distributed as a book of rules. There are no boards to print, no cards to make, no wooden chips or bits to include in a box. Some people are baffled by RPGs for this reason; if a board game comes in a box, then how can a roleplaying game come in a book?
Almost every game here is terrible.

So what exactly is a "system?"

Similar to how there are many different makes and models of automobile in the world, there are numerous roleplaying game systems. If I drive a Chevrolet and you drive a Toyota, we're both driving places but we're getting there with a different style. The feel of the cars might be different; the shape of the seats and the layout of the air conditioning controls might vary, but ultimately we're both driving cars. 

To continue the analogy, imagine that while you're driving your Toyota, I'm actually driving a completely different kind of vehicle. For instance, a train or airplane. Hopefully now you can start to understand the difference between the Dungeons and Dragons system and something more obscure. For instance, Savage Worlds .

The reason the game comes in a book instead of a box is because most of the game is about imagination. But how is that any fun? Some people think the idea of playing with their imagination is childish and stupid. Perhaps it is, but only as long as they're imagining childish and stupid things. The word imagination (like many other words) has suffered from Disneyfication; when people hear the word "imagination" they hear it in either a mysterious Sleeping Beauty Narrator kind of voice, or Ms. Frizzle shouting "use your imagination, kids!"


The first thing a you need to realize is that imagination can be a very dark and powerful thing. If you've ever read a book then you were subject to some degree of imagination both on the part of the author and from your own mind. Whether your were reading the driest and most boring narration of 15th century European history or the most exciting moments of the Lord of the Rings. Imagination is a part of your life whether you know it or not: If someone asks you what you're thinking of having for dinner, you'll probably look forward into the future with your imagination to see what you might eat. "What sounds good?" really means "what do you imagine yourself eating tonight?"

I googled "imagination"

Imagination isn't complete fabrication, either. When you're thinking, you're really pulling on every experience, conversation and memory in your life, usually with the most recent stuff floating to the surface.

With this in mind, I present you with the most simple explanation of why the heck anyone would waste their time playing a game like this. Essentially the game is one long string of hypothetical scenarios. If I said to you, "imagine that right now, while you're sitting in front of your computer, you look up and see a strange person standing in your doorway. The person is holding a knife and looks murderous.

What would you do?"

I'm not even sure they're playing a game. Looks like a really
terrible family reunion in the heart of the 90's.
Of course not every scenario is so dire, but these kind of scenarios are used frequently, even in things like employee training. This is nothing new to most people. So why is there such a jump in perception when I call something a hypothetical scenario versus when I call something a roleplaying game? A negative stigma brought on by horror stories of kids who killed themselves after playing D&D? The fact that the players of these kinds of games are typically really dorky? 

The fact is that tabletop RPGs are still fairly unpopular in the eyes of the mainstream, played only by an obscure underground of people. It's not all number crunching and funny voices; it's one writer creating a space for players to answer questions to hypothetical scenarios. It's this writing aspect that interests me the most.