We are not using the Z-Word!

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the concept of Evil in my Ancient Lands setting. It got me thinking about how a story or series of stories can be given its own distinctive character by deciding what words and concepts don’t exist in their worlds. Even longer back, I also remember reading an article about a writer saying he doesn’t use the word “damn” in his story because in that world there is no damnation that could await people. And it does not make sense in a Legend of Zelda game when a character says “Gee, it sure is boring around here”, because “Gee” is Jesus. Selectively not using word is probably something that readers are very unlikely to actively notice unless they are specifically looking out for it. But I think a great number of readers will at least sense it unconscously. So I’ve been thinking some more on other words I don’t want to use in my writing.

"Why not?" "Because it's ridiculous!"
“Why not?”
“Because it’s ridiculous!”

Zombie: The original Z-word. In the world I am using there are the corpses of the dead which get animated by magic and wander around attacking the living. But these are not created by some kind of plague or being altered by a wizard, but are possessed by evil hostile spirits. They can be mostly intact or nothing more than skeletons or anything in between. While not terribly smart or displaying any real motivations, they still think. They are still very much like zombies, but they are also quite different from the common movie-zombie. Also, a zombie is something the readers know and are familiar with, and within the world of the story the walking dead are so rare that almost no character will ever have encountered them. If I call them zombies, the readers will think the protagonist thinks of them as zombies and therefore assume these are not really anything to worry about for an experienced hero. If the protagonist is surprised and does not quite know what he’s dealing with, then the reader should feel the same and that just won’t happen if they are described as zombies.

Hell, hellish: Something can not look hellish, like Hell, or like from hell if there is no place called Hell and the people in the stories have no concept of such a place.

Ghost: Still not entirely certain about this, but I think I want to avoid using the word ghost. Those are those white glowing souls of the dead with unfinished business they have to complete before they can depart. In a world that is highly animistic, the default world for an incorporeal being would be “spirit”. In case the spirit is actually a dead person, I prefer the words Shade or Wraith. Like the zombies, it keeps readers a bit uncertain what exactly it is.

Soul: Like Evil, the word soul comes with a lot of preconcieved bagage. If the life energy of a person is not immortal and going to remain what it is in some form of afterlife, the term soul seems misleading to me.

Sin: Another word that really works only in a christian context. The best analogue in an animistic world would be taboo.

Wizard: I never use the term wizard. It always reminds me too much of scholars with libraries of arcane tomes and magic wands. Since that’s not in any way similar to what these people are in my stories, I always call them sorcerers or witches or something like that.

Fire!: This is admitedly pendantery. But arrows and catapults are not fired.

(And yes, I know. I need to find some other names for Ghost Paint and Soul Stones.)

Magic items in fantasy fiction

Long before I even started to consider serious fiction writing, I’ve been running roleplaying games for years. And in many games, things like magic swords, magic boots, and flying carpets are a pretty big deal. And when you look at many classic “proto-fantasy” stories and the Lord of the Rings, magic items are everywhere. Every halfway decent god or hero had two or three magic items he acquired over his many adventures by stealing them from villains he defeated.

I am not terribly well read in contemporary fantasy books, but it seems to me that magic items are almost absent these days. And in the Sword & Sorcery of Howard and Leiber they appear to be almost nonexistent. (Moorcock being an exception here, with a prominent magic sword being almost a character in its own right.)

Like monsters, I like magic items, as unfashionable they may be right now. But unlike monsters, I don’t really see how I would include magic items in my stories. It’s not that I can’t get magic items to fit into the world, but that with all my characters and villains, I just don’t see any actual use for them. A normal sword, a normal armor is good enough; as is a normal rope with a grappling hook and you can sneak around just fine without boots of sneakiness or an obscuring cloak.

The one point where I really do like “magic items” is when it comes to alchemy. Potions, poisons, smoke bombs and the like are wonderful stuff. These are quite different from regular magic items in two ways: They can be made by craftsmen and may only be borderline magical, and they are also used up once you use them. After that, you need to get new ones if you want to use them again. Which, again, isn’t that particularly difficult as they are relatively easy to make.

But I think it’s not primarily the “mundanity” of potions and bombs that makes them so much more interesting to me, but rather that they actively do something in a noticable way that makes a lot of difference. Take our default example for half of all fantasy discussions: Frodo Baggins. Frodo has a lot of magic items. A magic sword, magic armor, a magic cloak, a magic light, and of course a magic ring. The armors special ability comes into play only once in the entire story, when Frodo gets hit by a troll. But everything Frodo did was “not die”. His sword is a magic sword, but its most interesting ability is not that it’s super durable, super sharp, and super harmful to monsters or anything like that, but that it glows when orcs are nearby. That this magic item of orc detection is shaped like a sword is really just coincidence that doesn’t actually affect its usefulness. The one time Frodo uses his magic stuff actively is his light. And this is not the item that makes him fight harder, survive longer, and hide better, but the one item that he turns on and aims at an enemy. It’s a much more interesting weapon than his sword really.

And that’s what I like about alchemical items. Any time a character uses one, you really see something dramatic happen. In a story, you probably wouldn’t mention a character taking a sip from a magic potion to heal some bruises and small cuts. Healing potions are for when the character would die without it. Smoke bombs, flash powder, liguid fire, and metal eating acid are things that really change the situation a lot. A potion that protects against fire or cold allows a character to survive in otherwise deadly conditions. They don’t just improve the odds, they enable the character to do completely new things he couldn’t normally do.

Those few ideas I have for genuinely enchanted items go into a similar direction. A magic lantern that shows the way to a magically hidden place for example, or a magic gem that glows in the dark. These are also items that you turn on when you need them to do their thing, but don’t keep running the whole time. I think making a magic item being active makes it a lot more interesting than the item just being sligtly better manufactured than mundane gear.

Inception and how to tell a great story

I was just thinking about a funny quote from my favorite movie Inception, and it occured to me that in addition to the joke there is probably a piece of very good and very well considered writing advice in it.

It’s easy to miss when you watch it once or twice, but once someone points it out, it’s really obvious that the whole movie is not about heists or dreams, but really just about storytelling. (Don’t tell the audience what they are supposed to think and learn, make them come to the conclusion themselves. Don’t take too many liberties with the rules of the world, or the audience gets reminded that its all made up and then reject the fiction. Really, the whole movie is like that.)

The quote is:

Ariadne: And why don’t you approve?
Arthur: Because it involves telling the mark that he’s dreaming. Which involves attracting a lot of attention to us.
Ariadne: Didn’t Cobb say never to do that?
Arthur: So now you’ve noticed how much time Cobb spends doing things he says never to do.

All the characters in the movie stand for the different members of a film making team (with the man they trying to trick representing for the audience), and the character Cobb represents Nolan himself as the director and scriptwriter. And through the first half of the movie Cobb/Nolan explains how you tell a good story well and also points out what things are dangerous as they risk losing the audience.

And I think the line “So now you’ve noticed how much time Cobb spends doing things he says never to do.” is not just a joke. Because in the end, breaking lots of the rules works out very well for them.

Perhaps it’s even the most important line in the whole movie. Know the rules, understand the rules, but trust your instinct when you think it might be a good idea to break them.

Speak no Evil, see no Evil, hear no Evil, do no Evil

640px-Four_wise_monkeysReading a recent post from Bat in the Attic on the never ending topic of alignment in Dungeons & Dragons, one part did get me thinking:

What is good and evil? That is something each referee has to define. There is no right answer, my only firm recommendation is that there is answer and that it is consistent.

I had taken numerous classes on Asian philosophy and religion at university and one of the most interesting observations was that the concepts of Good, Evil, and Sin, as we are using them in European thinking and languages, don’t really apply in other parts of the world. They are frequently used in translations of Indian, Chinese, and Japanese texts, but such translations are both incorrect and misleading.

So why, instead of simply using mechanics as a rule in an RPG, not even taking the additional step and having a world in which not even the very concept of Evil exist at all? The concepts of Good and Evil assumes that there are universal rules, which can be followed or broken, and which have been put into place by some higher authority that is universally aknowledged to have the legitimacy to do so. This makes sense within Western and Islamic thought, where such a legitimized higher authority is assumed by default, even subconsciously by most people who rationally reject the notion. But in most fantasy worlds this is not the case and all you have is multipe higher powers that propose different views of morality and whose existance is universally accepted, even if most people chose to follow only the ideals of a specific deity. But without a single universal authority, you can’t have universal rules. Trying to enforce some kind of objective notion of Good and Evil seems arbitrary at best, and entirely inconsistent at worst.

Which is not to say that the majority of humans throughout human history did not have any notions of right and wrong. In Asian models of thinking you often find a related, but different concept of Beneficial and Harmful. In particular, beneficial and harmful for the pursuit of peace and harmony. Something that is harmful might not be considered evil, and some things that are good might not be beneficial. The concepts behind the monkes are of course not “see no Evil” and “hear no Evil”. The actual meaning is “do not watch harmfully, do nor listen harmfully, do not think harmfully, and do not act harmfully”. Yes, you can watch and listen harmfully. Being a spectator to bloodsports and public torture may not be Evil, as you’re not performing any evil deeds, but you still darken and corrupt your mind.

So why not have a fantasy setting in which Good and Evil do not exist. Not only not as forces, but also not even as concepts? In a roleplaying game, especially when you are running one in a homebrew setting, this is probably very hard to communicate to the players. But I think it might be a really interesting thing to attempt in my fiction writing. Most people would probably not notice it, especially in a Sword & Sorcery setting where things tend to get quite dark by default. But completely avoiding the use of the word “evil” really shouldn’t be difficult at all.

Humans with pointy ears

In Goethe’s probably most famous and classic play Faust, the honest and properly raised Gretchen falls in love with the dashing and intelligent Doctor Faust, but has some concerns about his pursues of alchemy and astrology and the highly suspicious companion he spends much of his time with. Despite all the trust she places in him, she eventually can no longer dismiss her worries and confronts him for the moment of truth: “How is’t with your religion?”

When it comes to fantasy these days, both literature and games, one of the big Gretchen-Questions appears to be “What do you think about nonhuman characters in fantasy?” No matter how you reply, there will always be lots of people all too happy to tell you why you should reconsider your stance. Some think it’s always a bad idea while others really don’t want to have anything to do with works that limit themselves entirely to humans. When it comes to Sword & Sorcery, a lot of people seem to be especially vehemently entrenched in their oppinion that it can’t really be even considered Sword & Sorcery when there are characters who are not humans in it.

One comment I see very often that appears to go for a middle ground is “I am not entirely against nonhuman characters, but they must be more than humans with pointy ears.” They have to be distinctly nonhuman in their nature and behavior or they could just have been humans in the first place. When you see a comment like that, you usually also see a great number of people who can totally get behind that and very much agree with it. But when you look at actual works of fantasy fiction, how often do you really see nonhuman characters that truely think and act completely different than humans do. Dark Sun had the Thri-kreen, a race of large and intelligent insects; Eberron the Warforged, a mass produced type of golem with human proportions build for warfare; and in sci-fi I could think of the Geth, a collective of trillions of programms that group together into artificial intelligences that control all kinds of robot bodies as fits their current needs. But these are a few exceptions out of hundreds and possibly even thousands of fictional types of people that have been made up in the last 100 years, who pretty much all very much fit the mold of “humans with pointy ears” (or horns, green skin, four eyes, or whatever).

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The Ancient Lands: A world of savage heroes and mythical beasts

Some may remember the name of the world from an RPG setting I’ve been working on last year, and which I used for a campaign this summer. With my interest in gamemastering significantly going back, I am now shifting towards trying my hand at writing stories. My current love in fiction is Sword & Sorcery, which conveniently focuses on a format of stories of shorter lengths and serial adventures instead of a single epic story arc, which personally suits me just fine. It seems much more practical for writing as a hobby instead of a profession. The more I looked into the craft of writing, the more it became apparent to me that worldbuilding for stories (be it book or movie) is very different from worldbuilding for a campaign. You can run campaigns in settings originally made for a book or movie, but that’s usually the most interesting for settings that have a lot of stories written for them. You probably wouldn’t run a campaign in the setting of Princess Mononoke, but Star Wars has everything a GM might ever want. In practice, a story setting, even an extremely detailed one, requires much less information on many things than a campaign setting. Even what Tolkien did was overkill, but writing The Lord of the Rings was really just the last thing he did with the world he had originally created just for the fun of creating a world. And in the end, 90% of all that material never gets even mentioned in the novel.

What I am planing to do here is to assemble a big toolbox of elements that I can use in stories and make references to, and also as a background that provides its own story hooks. I often find it a lot easier to come up with a story that involves the Sorcerer Kings of Dark Sun or the Priests of Set from Conans world, something that has to do with the Sith of Star Wars, or a plot dealing with the Daedra of The Elder Scrolls, than to come up with a story in a vacuum. I also find that it makes the stories feel more real. The plot does not just happen for a single reason and everything that is encountered or described in the story is in some way directly connected to the plot.

So what I am doing here with this series of articles is not about making an atlas and travel guide of the world, which enables a GM to pick locations a group of player characters can visit and how long it takes to travel between two points and what areas the journey would cross through. When you write a story, those are things you can just handwave. Maybe the journey took 10 days or 20, maybe they did have to cross a major river or mountain range, maybe not. In a game, those things are important. In a story you simply don’t mention what all happened between two scenes if it’s not relevant for the plot. Maps don’t matter. Instead, this is going to focus much more on the social and cultural side of worldbuilding. How do people from different population live and what is their relationship with each other. Where do they get there food from and what type of clothing do they wear. What technologies do they use in everyday life and what kinds of weapons and armor can they make or trade. These are all things that in most games really don’t matter or ever come up at all. In a story, they can be just as important as the plot, and in many cases have direct impact on the plot. And when a reader notices that there is a connection in a story between two things that have already been mentioned earlier, it makes the story feel a lot more realistic and unique. That’s why worldbuilding for books, movies, and videogames matters a lot. The Ancient Lands setting presented here is very heavily based on the Ancient Lands campaigns I ran in the past, but a lot of it has been shuffled around or been discarded completely, with a good deal of new elements being added to it, that make it a rather different world. Perhaps a bit like how the Forgotten Realms changed between the 3rd and 4th edition of D&D.

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Heroes, villains, and proactivity

It seems to have become some kind of common wisdom that great villains are often much cooler and more interesting than the heroes of their stories because they have actual goals and plans, and working towards accomplishing something. In contrast, the heroes tend to simply try to prevent that plan from succeeding. This is true both in fiction and in roleplaying games, where people seem to frequently have trouble with coming up with adventures and campaigns in which the players can be more proactive.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot these days, and I think it’s essentially correct, but also missing some quite important things. The appearance that villains act while heroes react is to a great deal caused by an overuse of the Heroes Journey and typical action movie plots, where the action hero is called in to deal with a criminal in 120 minutes or less.

But I think if a story spends some time on characterizing the villain and giving him motives, he actually is also simply reacting and not actually that proactive at all. My claim here is, that all characters ary trying to “reastablish the status quo” or “return things to normal”. For heroes this seems obvious and easy to see: Something went really bad and the hero now has to fix it so everything can go back to the way it should be. A villain who has a motive other than some quick money usually seems to believe that he has been wronged in some way and that his actions only serve to give him what he believes to be deserving all along. To the villain, the current state of things seems unfair and he is denied something that should be rightfully his. There are countless great villains who believe that they have been robbed of their legacy if they come from a rich and powerful background; or that society has denied them their share of a good life if they come from poverty. Very rarely do you see villains who want to rule the world or the kingdom simply because they think that would be pretty sweet. Instead they feel that they have to. And heroes motivations are usually very similar. A hero isn’t normally looking for trouble, but ends up in a situation where he’s the only one who can do something, whether he likes it or not.

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Sci-Fi and Fantasy Genres according to Brandon Sanderson

I came about a series of videos of a class Brandon Sanderson had been teaching two years ago on youtube. In which he has a great way of summing up the common genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy:

  • Epic Fantasy: World’s at stake.
  • Heroic Fantasy: Dudes with swords.
  • Urban Fantasy: Chicks in leather kill demons.
  • Military Sci-Fi: Space Marines! YEAAAH!!!
  • Space Opera: Adventure in SPACE.
  • Hard SF: Written by people with PhDs.

3 Acts and no End in sight

Yesterday I saw an article about the pacing in RPGs and 3-act story-arcs at Run a Game, which made me think of something that has been on my mind several times before. I actually think it’s a really good explaination of the subject and I don’t mean to criticize the authors views, but I think there’s something fundamentally flawed, or at least problematic with the whole premise of the subject.

The first sentence of the main article goes “Most western stories are structured around three acts”. And that’s the whole problem with it.

Three act story structure may be a classic and considered tried and true, and I think when it comes to theatre plays and movies, it’s still a valid approach. There are only two or maybe three hours to tell the whole story and that really isn’t that much time to have an elaborate beginning and end, as well as a good deal of additional action between them in the middle. But when we’re dealing with both literature, roleplaying games, and also video games, this is usually not a restriction the writer has to work with. And there is a serious downside to this approach. Because three act structure is comon in most western stories, things tend to become fairly formulaic. Not only do we have a pretty good idea what will happen, but also when it will happen. Things are getting too predictable. The first act twist and second act twist are not twists, and the third act revelation is not a revalation. Because we already know that they are coming, often long in advance.

A great example of this would be the Mass Effect series. In my oppinion, Mass Effect 2 is the greatest video game ever made. It actually beats everything else that is out there. But when I finished the game for the first time and the credits were playing, my first thought was “Wow, what a great ending. But what room is there really to continue from here?” While each game may have its own three act structure, the series as a whole is three acts as well. The first game introduces the great threat, and while it is contained for now at the end, we still know that this was just a first taste of the real trouble to come. In the second game, it is where the protagonists make progress toward solving the story problem, coming up with a goal and plans to address it, then gathering resources to achieve their goal: knowledge, skills, allies, and equipment. The stakes rise in the second act.” This was quoted directly from the Run a Game article (which again, does a really good job at examining the subject). But as soon as the credits ran, I know immediately what the next game would be like. Because there could only be one way the third game could be like. Things start to get much, much worse and it’s looking really bad for the heroes, but all hope rests on a newly introduced superweapon that may have the power to destroy the enemy, but will only be able to be deployed right at the brink of total annihilation when everything comes down to a massive final battle.

And that’s exactly what happened. Because it could not have happened in any other way. The conventions of the three act structure and the action hero genre demand it. Mass Effect 3 is now famous for being one of the most despised endings of any video game series with a backlash rivaled by few, if any, other things in the business. But as many problems as I have with the game, and there are a lot, I do give the writers a lot of credit for their attempt to break out of the overused cliches and do something different at the very end. They completely blew it in the execution, but I have great respect for them for at least trying.

I say, when it comes to the pacing for a campaign, stay well away from the standard three act structure. It’s just too predictable. In a minor spoiler for Mass Effect 3, there is a moment at the very end when the hero presses the button on the Phlebotinum Device and collapses from her injuries (female Shepard is the only true Shepard), having come all this way to do what nobody else could have done, overcoming countless obstacles that defy what should be possible. And nothing happens. You even get a radio call from your allies, asking frantically if you have already activated it. Now in the game, there comes one more thing the hero needs to do to save the galaxy, but imagine if it didn’t. Imagine everyone put everything on one card… and it’s a dud. What happens then? Is it all over? Well the battle might have been lost, but turns out it wasn’t so final at all. What now? Do we have a Plan B? We really need to come up with a Plan B now! And that’s when things are getting really interesting and exciting! The players are in a situation they don’t know, in which there is no default way to continue on. And that means that at this points, the players have actually more freedom to take control of the game than they did at any other point of the campaign. But you don’t have to wait until the very end to do this, you can start with it from the very beginning. Have NPCs switch sides, have people change their mind about important things, let people make mistakes, and let good plans end in failure. Don’t have the players simply going through the motions and performing their role. It may be called roleplaying game, but it’s not about performing a role in a script, but take free control over a character. In recent years I’ve come to love Japanese and Chinese movies because they are telling stories I have not heard before. Things are happening that I didn’t anticpiate and not just because it’s an obligatory sudden twist that was unforseeable. There probably will be a cool fight scene in the end, but usually I don’t know who will win and who will get the girl. Maybe the girl wins?!

So yeah… Three act story arcs are bad, mkay…?