Month: March 2013

Storytelling game mechanics, part one: roleplaying games

The best bit about playing games is the storytelling, as exemplified on Tabletop – not just the roleplaying games that are explicitly about narrative, but specific mechanics used in what would otherwise be considered pretty conventional modern board games.

In this part I will talk about a couple of roleplaying game mechanics which enhance the story telling.

Mad! Mad, I Tell You!

The roleplaying game Call of Cthulhu is about combatting eldritch horrors and, more practically, their deranged minions. A crucial part of the game is that your character has a limited amount of sanity which is eroded by encounters with the darkness – once a character’s sanity is gone, he or she becomes permanently insane and ceases to be a player character.

Sanity is a percentile value (01-00 => 1 to 100). It has a starting value usually in the range 50-75%, and has the following interesting properties.

Firstly, when a character encounters an unspeakable (or even speakable) horror, he or she makes a sanity roll to see how severe an effect the horror has: that is, the player rolls percentile dice trying to roll at or below the sanity statistic. In other words, the more sanity a character loses, the harder it is for that character to avoid losing more.

Secondly, there is another statistic – a knowledge skill – called Cthulhu Mythos. This is a measure of how much knowledge a character has of the dark horrors lurking under the surface of our world. It is a useful skill in investigating these terrible puzzles. A character’s sanity may increase, but it is limited at its maximum to 100 minus Cthulhu Mythos – the more competent a character becomes at deciphering the unspeakable mysteries, the less sane they may be.

The combination of these two mechanics conveys a sense of desperate decline over the course of the game, which exactly mirrors the feeling of hopeless decay evoked by Lovecraft’s original stories.

Hard to Kill

Another feature of Call of Cthulhu which I like is how deadly it is. By contrast, Savage Worlds is meant to be a a much more cinematic – even pulpy – game system. Part of that pulpiness is how difficult it is to kill the characters.

One mechanic which helps here is the wild die.

Characters have traits whose proficiency is measured in the type of die: the best skills have a d12, the weakest trained skills have a d4 (untrained skills are d4-2). Testing a skill requires the character to roll at or above a certain target number with the trait – usually 4, Harder tasks have a higher target number (eg trying to shoot someone hiding behind a wall increases the difficulty). So if your skill is trained to a d8 proficiency, it is easier to make the shot than for your buddy who has never picked up a bow before.

However, player characters roll two dice: the trait die, and the wild die – a d6 which gives a second chance to succeed at any test of skill or stamina. This makes it harder to kill characters because they usually roll successfully to evade a trap or disarm an attacker with one of their dice.

The second mechanic which helps is that each character gets bennies. If a roll was bad, the character may spend one of their bennies for the session and reroll.

The effectiveness of these mechanics can be measured by the fact that in Savage Worlds settings where the pulpiness is not desired (such as the Cthulhu Mythos setting) both of these mechanics are removed or weakened.

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Bad UI

Future tech is a major part of many science fiction stories. Indeed, if the whole point of the story is to examine the consequences of a novel technology, then the technology is going to be highly visible.

Something I like to think about is what the user interface would be. This is the first in an occasional series on user interfaces.

Every tool has a user interface

A user interface is how the user tells the tool what to do. Every tool we use has a user interface, or UI, of some kind: the UI for a hammer is to hold the handle with the heavy end pointing up and then to strike the heavy end against the object needing percussive force.

Physical tools tend to have tactile and relatively obvious usage modes: hammer, saw, and screwdriver all have pretty simple interfaces although there is a skill and subtlety involved in using such tools well. And these tools often have alternative usage modes: remove nails with a claw hammer; open a paint tin with a flat head screwdriver; or play a saw as a musical instrument.

Tools which use mechanisms have more complex and less obvious interfaces. The trigger switch of the gun or the drill is pretty clear and simple but it could have been done another way. The handlebars of an upright bicycle serve the dual purposes of steering and stability and so would be difficult to arrange much differently, whereas the arrangement of controls in a car is largely by convention. But again, there is subtlety to be learned in controlling these mechanisms well.

All of these systems have a direct relationship between the controls and the effect, though. This relationship breaks down for electronic devices, and especially digital electronics: software has no physics. The basic problem is that because (to a first approximation) computers can do everything it is hard to figure out how to tell them to do anything.

Too many features

The Guardian published this article recently, bemoaning the meaningless proliferation of features in household appliances.

The premise of the article is that there are too many useless features on these appliances, but I contend that the real problem is inadequate UI – the user has to know that all of those features are available and then make a conscious choice to use each one. A better UI would provide options appropriate to the situation, or based on previous usage patterns. You’ve put a piece of bread in your toaster? The SmartToast would present a big button to say “toast this how I like it”, with smaller buttons to choose whether to burn in a design of your choice: weather forecast, smiley face, Darth Vader helmet. It’s a waffle instead? SmartToast sets the crispness level to your usual choice.

And so on. If you don’t want that level of complexity, you could choose to just have the toaster present something closer to a simple “heat for this long” control, but with the added consistency of taking account of whether the heating element is already hot or not.

The point here is that the options presented to you should be appropriate for the circumstances, rather than necessarily everything at once. This is the thing that Apple’s UI people understand (mostly, iTunes notwithstanding) and Microsoft’s historically do not (the Office ribbon was theoretically an improvement but broke every existing user’s established usage patterns).

Next time I want to talk about feature hiding.

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Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett is astonishingly prolific, to the point where new readers can be intimidated by the number of books he’s written – especially when the majority of those books make up a single series.

The books that made Pratchett’s name were his Discworld novels, set on a world shaped like a pizza, spinning on the backs of four mighty elephants, themselves standing on the back of a gigantic turtle swimming through space. I first encountered Pratchett’s work on the recommendation of a book reviewer: Dave Langford, who used to write a review column in the gaming magazine White Dwarf (back in the days when it was a general publication rather than dedicated to Games Workshop’s own products). So I started reading Pratchett when there were only two or three books to read.

The Discworld has always been a satire. It began as a satire on fantasy of the time, subverting the standard tropes of fantasy novels and poking fun at fantasy games like Dungeons & Dragons to boot. As Sir Terry’s writing matured, the stories became much broader satire. These days, although the books are still set on the Disc where magic exists along with the usual cast of fantasy characters (including an especially nasty variety of elf), the characters and situations are as real and recognisable as any novel set in a modern city.

Rather than pick specific books, I am going to talk about related books within the series.

Wizards

These are the most overtly magical stories, the ones concerning the wizards of Unseen University and particularly Rincewind, the worst wizard in the world. The first Discworld novel The Colour of Magic is the first of these wizard books also, but they start getting really good with Interesting Times.

I am especially fascinated with Rincewind’s development over the books because he was clearly a character conceived as a joke who has grown into a fully realised person with skills as well as frailties.

Witches

Where there are wizards there must be witches, although on the Disc they don’t exactly see eye to eye. Equal Rites is strictly the first, although the story really starts with the Shakespearian Wyrd Sisters.

More recently, the YA books concerning the adventures of Tiffany Aching have done much to round out the nature of witches, and to close a circle that was opened at the beginning.

Death

The Death of the DIscworld is a very tall skeleton with a very sharp scythe who collects the souls of the dead. He’s a great character who pops up in almost all the books, but the stories about him and his family (!) start with Mort, where Death takes an apprentice.

Ankh Morpork

The greatest city on the Disc is Ankh Morpork, a bustling hive of a million people which squats upon the river Ankh much as a drunk squats on a toilet. It is the site of Unseen University, and ruled over by the Patrician. Most of the books feature Ankh Morpork at some point, but there are some that relate the stories of the city and its denizens specifically.

For example, the Watch novels capture the growth of the Night Watch and its commander Samuel Vimes from a desperate collection of losers into an effective public service. This series starts with Guards! Guards!

Belief

On the Disc, gods exist because of their worshippers’ belief. This idea is explored in three novels which cover some of the same thematic ground as Douglas Adams’ The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. The books are Pyramids, Small Gods, and Hogfather.

Other Books

Pratchett has written other books too, but one I particularly want to mention is Nation. This is a story about a slightly alternate Earth where two young people meet, survivors of a terrible disaster, and their efforts to survive and lead a tiny band of lost people. It’s brilliant stuff, well-turned storytelling that even those who don’t enjoy fantasy can appreciate.

I would also recommend the Bromeliad trilogy (Truckers, Diggers, and Wings) which concerns nomes – tiny people that live their lives ten times faster than we do. Funny and poignant.

Do you have a favourite Pratchett? Have you read him at all?

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Plan Outline

I’ve talked before about the need for an outline and a little about outlining technique, but I want to expand on that. All of my projects are in an outline phase at the moment, so it seems like a timely, er, time to go into more detail on how I approach outlining*.

Quotes are from the last post I wrote on this.

What am I trying to produce?

“An outline is a summary of a story, as it is going to be told.”

For novels, I find that I end up with several different kinds of outlines:

  • character summaries: characters have their stories
  • historical notes: so do places, countries, political parties, and the like.
  • story summaries: what is really happening
  • narrative structure: how the story is going to be told

That last one is what is closest to the completed work, the actual outline of the piece, but the others are useful tools: scaffolding for the story, which you don’t see in the final version but which may be critical in figuring out what to write.

Why am I outlining?

“If you have an outline, you can debug the story”

This is still about debugging the story.

My experience with Bluehammer has shown me that wading through the prose is not the most effective way for me to figure out the way to tell a story. So, my goal for outlining is to improve the telling of the story before I spend a month writing new words.

The point, then, is to use the outline to do a test run on the story as it is to be told so as to find the story problems and weak points so that I can fix them before entering the word mines.

What am I going to put into the outlines?

I’m going to follow a similar structure to what I already aspire to for chapter outlines, but with fewer undefined elements:

  • start point
  • initial location
  • characters involved
  • things which need to happen
  • end point

The difference in this outlining exercise is that I will break down the chapters into scenes, and beats within scenes, so as to be able to say how the story flows from event to event.

I will also include notes on bridging between chapters and scenes.

How will I use the outline?

An outline like this will take several passes to complete, and at each pass I will look at the bridges, at the stakes, at crises/turning points, and at pacing: it’s no good going from crisis to crisis to crisis without pause. The reader ends up feeling like a pinball, and the character sometimes needs time to reflect, if only to figure out how to take control of the situation.

For example, two of the most fast-paced novels that I have read are The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Altered Carbon by Richard K Morgan – the action in both of these books is intense, but also in both cases there is pause for breath occasionally: time for the character to heal, some consequence for the character’s wounds. Or consider the first two Terminator films: the foe is relentless, but there are moments where the characters get far enough ahead to be able to breathe. In the first one, even the terminator itself has to take a moment to make repairs.

So for the pacing I want to heighten the tension over the course of the story, while also allowing the characters to occasionally catch their breath. I should be able to see that in the outline without drowning in words.

[*] I should say that this is one of those process discovery topics where I am still figuring out what works for me, so when I say “how I approach outlining” what I really mean is “what outlining approaches I am going to try to see if any of it sticks”.

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2013 Goals Post: Ostara Edition

At the risk of sounding like someone in the confessional, it has been six weeks since my last progress update.

1. Finish Bluehammer

Last action: typo and basic consistency edits.

Completed these about a month ago, including the scene selection work needed and a terminology sweep (mostly around misleading calendar terms).

Last action: develop a plan, similar to the one I have for Song.

Here’s the Bluehammer plan –

  1. typo/consistency edit – completed, as noted above. I made a placeholder cover and put it onto my wife’s Kindle for her to read.
  2. improve outline – as I noted at the time, I talked about the outline to my writing buddy and we concluded that it was weak for a number of reasons. Making that outline better is critical for the continuing existence of this book.
  3. make the text match the outline
  4. hone the text
  5. make submission materials
Next action: fix the outline.

2. Execute the Song plan

Last action: polish the outline.

No further work on this, which is a problem because I am planning on writing the new stuff to flesh out the outline during Camp NaNoWriMo in April. However, this is what I am going to work on during spring break when I have an opportunity.

  1. To outline what I have
  2. To expand the outline of the first half into a complete story
  3. To work on that outline until the story is good.
  4. To plug in text I can use from Song 2011
  5. To write the new stuff needed to complete the outline
  6. (and the one I missed before) make submission materials – synopsis, pitch, hook, and all of that.

Next action: polish the outline.

3. Submit one novel.

Last action: finish a novel

Song is still looking like the most plausible thing to submit, but I am merely nearer to submission rather than actually ready to submit.

Last action: to find some markets

No work on this.

4. Start looking for an agent.

Last action: research agents who represent science fiction.

No work on this.

5. Establish a daily writing practice.

Last action: write every day.

I’ve been continuing to stay in touch my stories and my writing, although not always by making words. For instance, I spent a few weeks on the bus reading Snow Crash for story structure, which was interesting although I still have to apply more analysis.

April is going to be much more focussed on actual writing.

Next action: participate in April Camp NaNoWriMo.

Wildcat Activities

Some of the writing-related things I’ve been doing instead of planned activities include:

Because, y’know, I don’t have enough to do.

This last six weeks has also encompassed tax season. I am happy to pay my subscription to civilisation, but it doesn’t half suck up time making sure the subscription rate is accurate.

Overall

As with last time, I am continuing to make progress on finishing a book, but have done nothing further on actually being ready to submit. No excuses – this just hasn’t happened.

Next update will be Beltane (01-May-2013).

Are your goals staying consistent so far this year, or have the goalposts moved?

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Version Therapy

Some stories like to be retold.

We’re used to the idea of two versions of a story: the book and the film. But some stories are retold over and over.

One of these plural stories is Sherlock Holmes – between Benedict Cumberbatch’s modern alien Holmes and Robert Downey Jr’s Victorian superhero there are huge differences and great similarities. For example, the latest filmic Holmes is more physical than the character is usually portrayed where Cumberbatch’s portrayal is more, um, intense. But both retellings feature a very capable Watson; both show a maladroit savant seeking the thrill of a new problem.

Holmes has been retold by many authors and film-makers. Less common is the plural story retold by the same author. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is one of these, its story changing with each jump to a new medium: radio to novel to record to TV to computer game to movie.

Other writers have retold their own stories – Arthur C Clarke, for instance. 2001: A Space Odyssey began as a short story called The Sentinel.

I obsess about continuity between stories, and I suppose the lesson here for me is to loosen up a bit: consistency within a particular telling is critical, but there is not necessarily any harm in making changes between stories.

Tell the story that wants to be told.

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Weighty Matters

I do not have a stable weight.

The thing is… no, there isn’t just one thing, and I don’t want this to turn into another Spanish Inquisition sketch. So, let’s begin again.

I am lucky with my metabolism – if I stay focussed on managing my eating, and keep exercising, then I lose weight. That is not true – or at least not so easily true – for everyone and so I have to be thankful for that.

However, I do have to stay focussed at all times in order to manage my eating. My father recently described himself as greedy, and that is what I am like as well: I like eating, I like feeling full. I really like chocolate, and baked goods, and cheese, and half and half* in my coffee.

And so my weight will go up, or go down, but staying at a constant weight – particularly a desirable weight – is a trick I have never successfully learned, let alone internalised to the point where I do not have to make conscious effort.

There were a few years in my early adulthood where I was, if anything, underweight: I weighed 9st 8lb (136lb, 62kg) pretty consistently when I was at University, and I maintained a weight within a stone of that for four years after I started work. The reasons are simple: when I was at University I couldn’t afford to eat, and when I started working I cycled everywhere – a fifty mile bike ride was an easy thing then – so that it didn’t matter what I ate. That easy weight stability ended when I got a car, and when I stopped exercising regularly, let alone frequently.

It’s not as if I am especially overweight or unfit now, but I am not where I want to be weight-wise: running is harder when I weigh more, and my joints are under more stress. Losing ten pounds would be good, twenty would be better – I’d rather not have another round of knee surgery.

The relationship with writing (because everything I do involves writing) is complex, but my weight suffers most when I am focussing on my writing most intensely. November has often been an exercise-free month so that I can write over lunch, and like many writers I will use the promise of a snack as a motivator to get me to the end of the paragraph, the page, or the chapter.

This post is a marker, then: a line in the sand to say that it is time to focus on my eating again. Add this to my goals for the year:

  1. to track what I eat, with the intent being to keep daily intake below a certain threshold.
  2. to track what I weigh
  3. to continue exercising even when I am labouring in the word mines

I’ll be reporting back periodically.

In the meantime, are there any habits you would like to break or inculcate?

[*] this stuff was alien to me when I moved to the States, but for those who don’t know half and half is a homogenised blend of cream and milk which smooths out coffee a lot more effectively than milk alone while not being quite as lardy as pure cream.

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Bye bye Google Reader

Google Reader is being retired.

This is really annoying. It’s pretty apparent that Google doesn’t owe anybody anything here, since it is a free service, but they don’t have an equivalent feature set in Google+ so this is a puzzling retirement to me.

Also, Google Reader is the one Google service I use all the time. I mean, I check my email a few times a day, but I check my feeds all the time – it’s my twitch response when there’s a lull in my working rhythm. And the Android app runs well on my phone, which the G+ app does not.

So, I’ll have to find a replacement. There are a number of articles out there collecting alternatives so I will spend some time figuring out which works best for me.

At least we get some warning, and at least the data is transportable.

It’s still a maddening change, though. I am very sad.

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Camping

April is the first Camp NaNoWriMo of the year. It replaces Script Frenzy in the OLL calendar – last year’s Camp events were both in the summer.

My plan for Camp is to finish the manuscript for Song, which is more or less the next thing to do on that book.

I think I am going to put Bluehammer aside for now. I have a few other things that I need to get done before Camp starts, particularly the kid roleplaying. nd of course I will want to refine the Song outline a bit more.

Anyone else doing Camp in April?

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Tense Decisions

Has it already happened? Is it happening now?

There’s an old cricketing joke about choosing who bats first: the captain who wins the toss of the coin should examine the state of the pitch, look at the prevailing weather conditions, review the batting order of both sides, and then put the other side in to bat.

The choice of which tense to tell a story with used to be a bit like that: there were various dramatic and narrative reasons to use present or past tenses to tell the story, but it usually came down to using the past tense.

But choosing a tense because it is the default is no choice at all – what do you get from past and present tenses in your storytelling?

Past tense (I did, you did, we all did) tells a story that has already happened. Since everything occurs in the past, it implies that the narrator has survived the experience.

This sometimes militates against using past tense in first person narrative, because it removes the possibility of danger for the speaker. That’s not to say that past tense stories aren’t still exciting, but it can introduce a degree of detachment which may be unwelcome. There are techniques you can use to work around this – write the story as a diary, where the diary ends before the climax, for example – but those are not easy techniques to use well. I have a vivid memory from when I was about eight of using first person past tense and having the narrator die. It felt like an awful cheat to have him finish the story from the afterlife.

Present tense (I do, you do, he doesn’t) tells a story that is happening now. It makes the story more immediate, but also narrows the focus of the narrative: first person present tense is involving and exciting, but amplifies the issues I discussed before of events occurring away from the narrator.

However, if you are using second person as your POV, you may find that the present tense almost feels like the default – I’m thinking here again of the text adventure game style of writing: you pick up axe; you open the door; you are beaten around the face and neck by an angry lumberjack; and so on.

Past tense is the default for many kinds of writing – reporting really needs to be in the past tense, as does much other factual writing. Present tense can sneak in to odd places like design documentation – for example, describing how a software system behaves – but that is very much the exception.

Whichever tense you use for the main narrative, it can be helpful to switch to the other one for flashbacks – such a change clearly signals to the reader that it is not part of the main narrative. Arguably this works more transparently if the main narrative is in present tense while the flashback is in past tense, but switching to present tense for a past experience introduces some of the feeling of a vivid memory.

The one rule that comes out of all of this is that which tense your story is written in is less important than that it is used consistently: pick one for a scene, and stick with it.

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