I love chase scenes. I love watching them in movies, I love seeing them on TV, I love reading about them in books, and I love running them in RPGs. There is, however, a problem:
I am a writer, not a movie director or a TV showrunner, and chases are goddamned hard to make work in fiction. The act of description (of showing not telling) runs at odds to the pacing of a good chase. You want the chase to rocket from one moment to the next, you want the reader on the edge of their seat as the chasers/chasees teeter ever closer to disaster as they veer in and around the obstacles set in their path, be they pedestrians, ancient Roman pillars, cliffs, or what-have-you, but describing that in sufficient detail becomes a very delicate balance. Not enough and the reader can’t see what you are trying to convey and too much means the whole things slows down.
I’ve been trying to think of chases in books that work the same way that scene from Bullit does or the ones in any given Fast and the Furious movie. Hell, even the foot chases from The French Connection or Casino Royale would be acceptable. I’m having trouble thinking of one, honestly. There’s the pizza delivery scene in Snow Crash, which is cool (but not really a chase) and Hiro Vs Raven on cyber-cycles (which is okay). There’s some stuff in Tolkien, but Tolkien is anything but an ‘edge of your seat’ writer.
Maybe I’ve struck upon something here. Maybe I just don’t read enough of the right genres for these things to pop up consistently. In any event, I’m going to keep trying to figure out the chase and put it in my writing. ‘Edge of the Seat’ is sort of my fiction-writing mantra in many of my projects, and the chase is a key element of any good suspenseful storyline, I think. Chasing and being chased is an ancient and instinctual activity. We dream about it constantly; the thought of the hounds at your heels, baying into the night with the scent of blood in their nostrils, is the stuff adrenaline surges are made of. The fight or flight response is some healthy, powerful dramatic material that needs dredging from time to time. The ‘Fight’ part is well-established in fiction, but where would it be without the flight? Without that sensation of chasing down your enemy, stretching your fingers out to seize his traitorous throat, only to feel your fingertips graze only the hem of his jacket?
I think there’s a little bit of poetry in action scenes, be they chases or otherwise. Good writers need to embrace that balance of economy of diction with properly evocative turns of phrase in order to elicit dramatic effect. It’s damned hard work, but rewarding if you get it right.
Or, at least, I presume so. I’ll let you know when I feel I’ve gotten it right.
Author’s Note: This is another bit of intro fluff text for a Shadowrun: Hong Kong mission I’ll be running soon. Hope you enjoy it!
It is one of those rare, sunny days during the rainy season. The sun and the humidity combine to make the world a steam-bath. The smell of humanity and dead fish is so thick you can feel it hit the back of your throat when you breathe. It is days like this you miss the desert.
You have escaped the oppressive heat and stifling dead air of your apartment in Yau Ma Tei and taken a road trip to Stanley on the south coast of Hong Kong Island. It was a long trip on the MTR, but going underground was a relief for a while, and now you’re here sitting outside at a sea-side café, watching the fishing boats unload and listening the patter of tourists as they wander in and out of charming seaside markets and sunny pubs. You have a beer – a real, honest-to-god beer – that costs as much as the rest of your meals for the day combined, but for a breath of the occasional sea breeze, it’s worth it.
You have to keep reminding yourself, however, to keep your Third Eye closed. Stanley looks nice, but beneath the happy storefronts and pleasantly maintained restaurants lie the echoes of the metahuman race riots of the 2020s that scarred much of the town and left a blighted feeling to the Astral Plane here. It serves as a potent reminder of what Hong Kong really is, underneath – bloody, dark, and rotten. Today, though, you want to live in a fantasy for a while.
That’s when the little girl in the school uniform slides into the seat across from you. Her blouse has the embroidered characters of a local Wuxing-run school; she’s maybe eight years old, with pigtails and saddle shoes. Cute as a button. Her eyes, though, are a blazing shade of orange. They aren’t implants, either, or contacts.
It’s Emmanuel. You don’t need to perceive him astrally to know. “Whatever you do, don’t hurt the girl.”
The girl smiles broadly. “I was thinking I’d get her drunk before I took her back home. Whaddya say you buy me a beer?”
You shrug. “I could just banish you from her. Would you like that?”
Emmanuel makes the girl’s face contort into a vicious scowl the girl herself has probably never used. “No need to be rude. I’ve a job for you, you know.”
“Maybe I’m busy.”
“And taking the train all the way out here to sit on your ass? Please.”
You haven’t seen Emmanuel in a few weeks. That time he possessed the rabbi at your synagogue and that time you did banish him. You were wondering if the creature would return again, and were secretly expecting some kind of significant number of days or years – 1001 hours, 66 days, something like that – before he showed himself. Instead, he just shows to screw up a perfectly good lunch. Typical.
“What’s the job?” The sooner you indulge the spirit, the sooner you figure you can go back to your beer and that sandwich they’re supposed to be making you.
“You hear about the botched hit on Lantau Island?”
You nod. A team of amateurs tried to take out some VIP – Korean guy – and botched it. Wound up as a running gun battle that had the dimwits chasing the VIP and his bodyguards all the way into Kowloon City somewhere. HKPD was all over it, still is. “What about it?”
“Well, I’m the fellow who hired that team in the first place.” Emmanuel straightened his skirt, evidently proud of himself. “Should have known better – should have come to you directly. I was still angry at you, though.” A girlish shrug and a toss of the pigtails, “Oh well – live and learn. Should have remembered my training.”
The ‘training’ Emmanuel is referring to was his time as a bound spirit for a mage in the GDSE–the French Foreign Intelligence Service. It wasn’t so much training as it was eavesdropping, but Emmanuel has never been terribly clear on the difference. When he was freed of service (by accident), he stayed on as a GDSE ‘agent’ until they couldn’t stand his more erratic behaviors anymore. Given that both of you were kicked out of foreign intelligence services, he sees you two as kindred souls. You see him as a kind of cosmic punishment.
“You want me to go after them now?”
“If you take over the original team’s contract, I’ll let you keep the original fee the first team was due plus 20%.”
You frown – spirits are notoriously bad at math. “What do you mean by that – give me a number.”
“36,000 even. All you need to do is kill the guy and bring the contact his head. Accept and I’ll have the Mr. Johnson forward you the guy’s dossier.” The little girl Emmanuel is possessing smiles sweetly and bats her eyes. “Pleeease?”
You sigh. Your instincts say pass on this one – too messy already – but you’re hurting for work. If you ever want to take another trip like this one, you’re going to have to earn some money. “One condition.”
Emmanuel giggles. “Yes?”
“You return the girl home immediately after this conversation and don’t harm her in any way. Clear?”
Emmanuel pouts. “Be sure to get this guy before the cops get to him – that was really explicit in the original job. The cops have him cordoned off somewhere in Kowloon Walled City, but that’s Chysanthemum territory, and…”
“Just go. I’ll get the details from an actual human.”
Emmanuel sighs elaborately. “You’re no fun.”
“This may come as a surprise to you, Emmanuel, but neither are you.”
Just finished reading Felix Gilman’s Half-Made World (which I highly recommend; it’s like King’s The Gunslinger meets Steampunk during the American Civil War) and which got me thinking a lot about the tangible differences between fantasy and science fiction worlds. You might love them the same, but they might not both be places you would want to explore beyond the bounds of the story itself. Others, meanwhile, are places you feel like you could keep visiting forever.
In the former case, those worlds are somehow wedded to their stories and characters so inextricably, it’s hard to imagine those worlds outside the context of that story. If the characters didn’t exist, in other words, there wouldn’t be much keeping you invested in the goings on of that world. In this category I stick places like Westeros, Middle Earth, and Arrakis. Great settings, to be sure, but settings devised to support and explore the story being told there which is, as it happens, pretty much the only story in town. What would Westeros be without the contest over the Iron Throne? What on earth is there to do in Middle Earth besides fight the Great Enemy? If the Spice weren’t a big deal, do you have any other stories to play with in Arrakis?
Of course, the assessment of what gives a world a ’life of its own’ is bigger than simply there being one story to tell. Even worlds with a lot of different things going on (the Firefly universe, for instance) need the attention to detail and the vibrancy of a well-constructed environment to make it somehow self-sustaining (which Firefly doesn’t quite have for me). The world needs a feel, a mood, a sense of possibility and a wealth of secrets ready to be unveiled. Star Wars has this, as does Star Trek, and I would say that it is that ’something’ that gives those franchises a kind of eternal life. You can imagine yourself living there, but without needing to be aboard the Millennium Falcon or USS Enterprise to do it. Interestingly enough, Gilman’s West in Half-Made World, while really seeming to orient itself along a single story axis (the struggle between the Agents of the Gun and the Progress of the Line and those caught in-between), affords, with the creation of those two forces, a wealth and breadth of possible stories originating from various branches off that main axis. You have people who pledge themselves to the Gun but recant, you have those who fight off the Line, but still embrace its machines, you have idealistic republics and moral philosophers of every stripe that pervade the fabric of this vast society, and then, of course, there are the First Ones in the background and the simple realization that the world itself is not completely created yet.
This sprawling complexity coupled with a clear story and frequent places where one could see drama inserted and new stories born is key to making a fantasy world into a playground, a touchstone with infinite dramatic potential. All the best role-playing game settings have this, too (must have it, actually), and this places – these worlds that are fun to visit and always interesting to explore – can make for very long and successful story arcs or, if you like, RPG campaigns.
All of this, however, is not intended to denigrate those worlds that aren’t playgrounds and those worlds that are tightly wrapped around their creator’s narrative and thematic purposes. Worlds that are driven towards a single purpose, while perhaps not able to consume our daydreams, do have more narrative and allegorical power. Arrakis is a powerful metaphor for wealth, for faith, and for the greedy impulses that undermine both. Middle Earth is a story about the loss of the beautiful in the face of the practical, modern, and civilized. Arrakis and Middle Earth do this job better than worlds like Gilman’s or Roddenberry’s, because all of their narrative effort is devoted towards ‘the Cause,’ if you will. Their ‘playground’ may only have the one swing set, but it’s a damned fine one.
As I have built (and continue to build) worlds in which to set my stories and novels, I find myself teetering between these two poles – am I crafting a playground, or am I crafting a Message. The wise course is, perhaps, somewhere between the two. Inevitably, however, I find myself straying further and further towards the playground model, and keep making a place that not only suits my story, but that could suit stories far beyond those I, myself, have imagined.
I’ve been running role playing games for my friends for about 22 years or so at this point. I have created and run over a dozen campaigns and innumerable one-shot adventures. I’ve played RPGs with rank newbies and grizzled veterans and everybody in-between. I’ve lost count of the number of game-systems knocking around in my head (and, indeed, as any of my long-time players can attest, I sometimes get them all tangled up together.). What I lay out here are the strictures by which I try to run what I consider to be a good game. They may work for you or not; all I’m expressing is my experience. I might also add that I don’t always live up to these commandments myself, as much as I try. When they all work, though, something golden is bound to happen.
#1: Thou Shalt Not Take Thy Game Too Seriously
Yes, I realize you spent hours and hours prepping this adventure. Yes, I know your players are being paranoid weirdoes and metagaming this thing to hell and back. You are absolutely right that your players aren’t taking the Black Dragon of Immortal Dread seriously. I get it. Your players are being dicks. Now, pay attention: Get Over Yourself. Repeat back to me: This is a game. It is not all that important. I will not pout or complain or storm off or exact my vengeance on my friends in the form of falling rocks. The idea in an RPG, hell, the idea in every single game, is for people to have fun. Are your friends having fun? Yes? Then shut up. Roll with it. Improvise.
#2: Thou Shalt Clearly Explain The Game’s Goals
The easiest way for players to ‘ruin’ your game (and please keep in mind that RPGs can’t actually be ruined if your go with it) is for them to have no idea what you want out of the game. Your fun is every bit as important as their fun and, if they are your friends, they should care about that. So explain to them in clear terms what you want the game to be. “This is a dark, gritty crime thriller game set in a dystopian future” or “This is a horror game where you guys are monster slayers” or “This game is supposed to be high adventure space opera with laser beams and talking robots and everything.”
This gives your players the choice: do you want to play this game that I have described, or do you not? If they don’t, no harm/no foul. If they do, they should be willing to buy into the whole thing. If you and the players work together, things will get awesome fast. If you and the players aren’t on the same page, it isn’t going to work.
#3: Thou Shalt Hold Story Above All Else
RPGs are not strategy games. They aren’t card games. They are Role Playing Games, which means people play roles (characters) and you, as Gamemaster, put them in situations where they can play those roles. They are, in essence, highly collaborative storytelling games. As such, the story needs to get top billing. It isn’t just that the players are doing a certain thing, there needs to be some understanding of why they are doing this thing and what the stakes are and what happens next if they succeed and so on and so forth. Now, this doesn’t mean a fair amount of strategy can’t be involved (particularly if the game’s concept calls for it), but any RPG that degenerates to mere dice rolling and accounting is going to be dull. Victory is far more sweet when it means something, and it won’t mean anything without a story attached to it.
#4: Thou Shalt Find Every Player Character Cool
Yes, all of them. Even the ones that are very much not cool, like the pacifist half-orc accountant or that one guy who wants to play a wandering poet named Dweeber who keeps a dead fairy in a pouch in hopes it will produce pixie dust someday. It doesn’t matter if the player has come up with a character you think is the dumbest, least interesting, least appropriate or useful character ever devised by man, it is your requirement, as GM, to love him and try and make him look cool.
Why is this your job? Because the GM is supposed to make the adventure fun, and a player who finds his character useless and ignored (no matter how rightly) isn’t going to have much fun. Now, making them work may take some doing here, but try and figure out what circumstances will make that character shine and make a point to give them that opportunity as often as is feasible within the bounds of the story. Again, if you’re obeying Commandment #2, ideally this shouldn’t be much of a problem very often, but stranger stuff can happen. Anyway, if somebody shows up to the table with a stupid character, you need to forget all about that character’s stupidity and work your ass off to make them awesome. The game will be much better off for it, trust me.
#5: Thou Shalt Improvise
You cannot plan for everything the players are going to want to do. There are two solutions to this problem: First, you can just not let them do things that don’t fit inside your plans (this is called ‘railroading’) or, second, you can just say “Yes, and…”
“Yes, and” is an improv term, and it is an important one. It means you agree to what the players want, and you use this new input on their part to make more interesting and fun things happen. This requires you, as a GM, to think on your feet a lot, but that’s okay – you should prep with the possibility of improvisation in mind. When I design adventures, I typically devise a series of NPCs the players will or may interact with and then devise the plots these NPCs have going on their own. As the PCs bump into each of these NPCs, this creates a story that spreads throughout the little universe I’ve created. If I need to create new elements, I do so, and they continue to influence the setting of the game, creating more conflict, more story, and more fun stuff. It really works, and it beats the hell out of the whole ‘you can’t do that’ angle.
#6: Thou Shalt Keep It Moving
Sometimes, players will start planning something (a raid on a castle, a dungeon exploration, an elaborate jail break), and then they will never stop. Not ever. They will spend hours and hours and hours sitting around and arguing with each other and then, when they finally get down to doing something, it’s already midnight and everybody needs to go home.
You job, as GM, is to cut that shit out. This is a really hard one, believe me, since a lot of players have an intrinsic distrust of you (which ought to be wildly misplaced, I might add) and will look suspiciously on any attempt by you to hasten along their planning process. You need to stop them, though, or they will miss the actual fun of the game, which is the execution of their plans. Let them plan, by all means, but let’s keep it down to 2 hours or so, tops. Be willing to fudge details in their favor, if you must, but keep it moving. As interesting as their plans are in the first fifteen minutes, by hour three they are usually just repeating themselves and getting nowhere. Moderate their discussions. Give them suggestions that would naturally occur to their characters. Ask questions that will direct them towards a concrete plan.
#7: Thou Shalt Not Obsess Over Minutiae
A lot of games lend themselves to the endless discussion of minor details. Games like Shadowrun, for instance, which has elaborate rules for every piece of gear in the game plus lifestyle costs, exchange rates, and so on and so forth. Old Dungeons and Dragons had it’s famed Encumbrance tables, Riddle of Steel has its half dozen interlocking wound tables, and so on and so forth. Maps like the one to the right here are as common as goblins.
Now, these things certainly have their place in the game, but there comes a point when you need to let it go. Screw up a rule? Whatever – move on. Forget that object X actually costs 30% more than you quoted? Nobody cares – move on. Are the PCs stuck in the middle of a labyrinth with no map and no conceivable way of escaping without said map? Too bad – let them find another way. Keep it moving.
This commandment has a lot to do with commandments 5 and 6, granted, and is also related to the all important commandment 2, but it is unique in the sense that it pervades every single part of the game, from character creation through the doling out of XP rewards. The rules – the book – is always the least important part of any game I run. I follow the rules, sure, but I never let those rules dictate what happens in the game. Why? Well, because just following the rules means the PCs can lose. They can all die. The game can end in misery and disappointment simply because your players were (perhaps accurately) too stupid to save their own hides. That’s not okay; that’s no fun. Don’t let the fine print ruin the bold sweeps of a campaign.
#8: Thou Shalt Make Things Dangerous and Create Tension
90% of players in the universe are danger averse. They want their dungeon crawl to go perfectly according to plan, they want all of their stuff to work exactly when it’s supposed to, and they don’t want their character to be injured.
Fuck that noise.
Stories where everything goes according to plan and nothing goes wrong are BORING. They aren’t half as much fun as when things go pear-shaped halfway through and everybody has to scramble to pull off a suddenly-improbable victory. Those are the games that players talk about for years afterwards. Those are the campaigns that set the standard for every campaign you ever run again. You want there to be danger, since danger creates tension, and tension is fun. Blow stuff up. Have something go wrong. Make the PCs work for their victory, since then (and only then) will the victory be sweet.
There are, of course, limits to this (consider commandment 4), but as a GM you should always seek to make things just difficult enough that plan A is by no means assured of success and plan B is likely to be shot to hell, too. This may sound mean, but if you give your PCs the opportunities to succeed, then everything will be fine.
#9: Thou Shalt Be Generous
If something is not central to the story of an adventure and the players want it, let them have it. If a player creates a long-lost relative who lives in town and there isn’t some reason to forbid it, let it go. If a player wants his PC to be crown prince to a kingdom, tell him it’s okay. If a PC has her back against the wall and doom settling over her from all sides and begs for one chance to make it out alive, give it to her. You are not the PCs enemy. Let me repeat that:
YOU ARE NOT THE PCs’ ENEMY!
You are the facilitator of their grand adventure and attempt at glory, not their direct adversary. You want to make this fun, not arduous or frustrating. If you ‘win’ and all the PCs are dead and the game is over, you have failed as a GM (unless, via Commandment #2, you set this up for them as a possibility). Don’t be a jerk. This isn’t a power trip, or at least it shouldn’t be.
#10: Have Fun
Basic rule of existence: if you are having fun, people around you are more likely to have fun. Smile. Enjoy yourself. Laugh. Do what you think is cool. Your enjoyment of this game is just as important as anyone else’s, and if your players have beaten you into a place where you no longer enjoy running for them, you are missing the whole point of playing a game. Fun is the whole idea and, as GM, nobody has more power to make things fun than you. Go after it! Enjoy!
So, I just was nominated for the Liebster Award for small blogs by Smash of Smashing Through Life. This is such a nice gesture, as I feel my dusty little corner of the internet doesn’t really get a whole lot of attention, and it’s always nice when someone stops by to pay me a compliment. This thing doesn’t come with any prizes or fame or fortune, but that’s okay – it’s a nice way to connect to the rest of the blogging community, anyway, which is something I rarely do. Anyway, here we go with the festivities:
The Liebster award is a recognition given to small bloggers by other small bloggers (max 200 followers), and the rule for the awards are:
1. Thank the Liebster Blog presenter who nominated you and link back to their blog. That’s easy enough. Thank you again to my friend at Smashing Through Life
2. Post 11 facts about yourself, answering the 11 questions you were asked and create 11 questions for your nominees.
3. Nominate 11 blogs who you feel deserve to be noticed and leave a comment on their blog letting them know they have been chosen.
4. Display the Liebster Award logo.
5. No tag back thingy’s. (Which I assume means that the people I nominate can’t just re-nominate me?)
Now, my answers to Smash’s Questions:
- How do you take your eggs?
Depends on my mood, really. Usually over-easy, just a tad runny, with a bagel or English muffin. I also eat Hard Boiled with a bit of salt and a bagel.
- What is the best concert you ever went to?
I really haven’t been to a lot of non-classical concerts, actually (hold on and let me adjust my pocket protector). I would say the best concert I went to was a thing at Boston’s Symphony Hall last year that featured a bunch of young up-and-coming artists (of whom my daughter’s babysitter was one) and was followed up by Steve Martin’s bluegrass band. Good times.
- What’s hiding under your bed right now?
The nightmares of a thousand wayward children, condensed and made solid by weighty tread of centuries in the dark. Or my dog. Yeah, probably just my dog.
- Worst book you ever read, maybe you couldn’t even finish it. What was it?
Tough one – I’ve read a LOT of bad books. I’m going to go with a controversial choice, since this book consistently gets me into a rant: Push by Sapphire (which I read years and years ago, long before the movie, which I’ve never seen) was a *fantastic* book for the first three quarters or so of the narrative and then Precious just stops being in it and her voice is gone and we’re reading stuff from the point of view of the other kids in her class. WHAT THE HELL IS THAT CRAP? Drives me absolutely bonkers that the protagonist just vanishes from the novel like that, left more-or-less mid-conflict (or at least I don’t recall any kind of denouement, not even an incomplete one).
I’ll give an honorable mention to Portrait of a Man Unknown by Nathalie Sarraute, as it is a novel without any proper nouns. That’s right, you heard me.
- How do you like your pizza topped?
Sausage, garlic, extra cheese.
- What’s the most outrageous thing you’ve ever eaten?
A chicken heart. It’s kinda like meat-flavored chewing gum.
- What is the most played song on your iPod?
Don’t own an iPod. Weird, right? The music I probably listen to most often is various movie soundtracks – O Brother Where Art Thou, Conan the Barbarian, etc..
- Would you or do you go to the movies alone?
I do not, thus I hardly ever go to the movies anymore. Le sigh. I see things at home usually 1-3 years after they come out.
- When was the last time you got so drunk you couldn’t remember anything the next morning?
I don’t drink, so this has never happened to me. I did get drunk once as an experiment, just to see what it was like. According to my girlfriend (and now wife) who was present, I’m a lusty drunk.
- Something that makes you smile, every single time you think of it. What is it?
“I hope the Pacific is as blue as it is in my dreams.”
- What is the bravest thing you’ve ever done?
I really don’t know. Nothing I’ve ever done sticks out to me as being particularly brave, or at least not that I consider so. I once recovered a runaway sailboat by being dragged behind it for a couple miles. I want to become a professional novelist. Those things, I guess, are brave after a fashion.
Here are my questions:
1) Why do you write a blog?
2) If you could visit any period or place in history, where would it be and why?
3) Domestic Pets: Dogs, Cats, or ‘Other’?
4) If you were President of the United States, what would you do with your power first?
5) What is the coldest day you remember?
6) What’s the scariest movie you ever saw?
7) Who do you think is the best actor/actress currently alive?
8) Your ideal Thanksgiving/holiday meal would contain which foods?
9) If they sold flying cars, would you want one?
10) Who do you think will conquer whom: Do we conquer the aliens, or do the aliens conquer us?
11) If you actually had the One Ring in your possession, which of your friends would you give it to because you know they wouldn’t be corrupted by it?
Now for my nominations. The thing is, I really don’t read a lot of other small blogs (shame, shame), so I don’t know that I’ll get quite 11 of them. Here it goes, though:
That’s all I got! Thanks again, Smash (insert bow here).
This is going to be a half gaming, half storytelling post, so you’ve been warned.
I like mazes and puzzles. When I saw The Goonies when I was a kid, that treasure hunt through the caves of One Eyed Willie was my idea of boyhood paradise. I searched the islands near my house for secret passages, cryptic messages, and buried treasure. All I ever found was a curiously discarded park bench on an island otherwise completely given over to seagulls and poison ivy.
When started playing D&D (well, running D&D. I’ve run far, faaar more games than I’ve ever played in), I used to devise elaborate mazes just like the caves and labyrinths of the old RPGs on my NES. I thought it would be fun, to have players sneak around in those mazes, hunt down bad guys and treasure, and avoid the occasional tripwire, deadfall trap, or poison dart corridor. It wasn’t.
Actually, it was deadly boring for everyone but me. I traced the players along on my secret map, and they were barraged with endless questions like “left, right, or straight?” or “there is a stairway up and a stairway down–which way?” There would be the occasional monster to deal with, but outside of that, my players were really tired of that nonsense by the time they got to the end of the campaign. Hell, they still give me crap about it to this day, and this game ran a full twenty years ago when me and my childhood friends were in 7th and 8th grades.
Still, though, I was fascinated with the idea of labyrinths and puzzles in stories and in games. Movies like Labyrinth and fantasy series like The Death’s Gate Cycle kept me interested. How, though, could you incorporate the satisfaction of solving a puzzle without slogging through the tedium of wandering up and down corridors? You can, of course, create linear dungeons and such (room after room, in sequence, each with a different challenge), but while that ensures the fun of solving a puzzle, it removes that sense of discovery one gets when you pull back a secret passage or make your way around that last corner. In stories, this effect is easier to simulate, but the labyrinth is necessarily reduced to operating at whatever speed the plot insists, and the protagonist(s) find his or her way through and encounter each obstacle at predetermined points, though with the illusion of being ’lost’ woven around them.
Is this, then, the only solution for the labyrinth? Is wandering corridors and getting stuck in loops until, suddenly, that moment of epiphany pulls you through–is all that merely the province of video games, never to make the transition into pen-and-paper RPGs or fiction?
Well, no, it isn’t, but to do otherwise requires the assistance of your players/audience. If you are GM-ing for a bunch of PCs who will never bother to figure out ‘where the thrush knocks’ and, instead, blunders forward slaying goblins until the entrance to Smaug’s lair is made evident to them, that moment of discovery is forever denied them. They don’t want or need that moment; they’d rather it be figured out for them. Likewise with your readers: if they won’t bother trying to figure out who killed Mr. Ratchett or why a stag appears as Harry’s patronus and are just waiting around to be told, there’s nothing you can do to make them wonder. Lay out as many clues as you like, hang as many of Chekov’s guns on the wall as possible, and they still won’t notice. There’s nothing to be done here without collaboration.
If, however, you can make the stakes clear and the rewards compelling enough – if you can fire their curiosity – why then there isn’t a labyrinth they won’t try to unravel, no clue they will fail to track down, and they will do it all with a smile on their face. In this sense, whether GMing a game for a bunch of your friends or writing a story for a larger audience, you need to meet them halfway. You need to give them something to hang on to in order to get them through that maze. Kidnap their kid brother, threaten to burn down their house, or steal their very souls away. That way, if done right, they will enjoy the journey as much as the destination.
I saw Star Trek: Into Darkness over the weekend. A good movie – I had a lot of fun and that fun far outweighed the parts of the movie I found a bit silly (the Enterprise hiding underwater, for instance). This post, though, is only tangentially inspired by the movie, and I only reference it as a way to indicate how pervasive the issue under discussion is.
What I want to talk about is kung fu. Well, not real kung fu, but movie kung fu. The kind of martial arts action sequences that have been slowly permeating western cinema for the past 40 years or so to the point where, currently, it has completely taken over. “But,” you say, “not every fight scene is a kung fu thing!” True enough, but the various unspoken tropes of the kung fu fight are still very much present. The piped-in punch sounds, the dramatic pauses between exchanges, the acrobatics, and the duration of most fights, whether traditionally ‘kung fu’ or not, are pretty much everywhere. I would count Benedict Cumberpatch’s take-down of the Klingon patrol in this latest Star Trek as kung-fu in style, as was his thumping of Kirk and his brawl with Spock.
Now, I’m not here to say that the average kung fu style fight is an inherently bad thing, but there is another way to do things. The kung fu battle is something of a dance – we watch to see the grace and ingenuity of the combatants, even though the end is not inherently in doubt. We don’t spend the fight on the edge of our seats, we nod along and applaud the good maneuvers just as we might when watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers skip across the floor. This is not ‘real’ fighting or even a facsimile thereof – this is performance art. It’s fun, but it isn’t really intense most of the time. It’s a precisely timed routine with beats and rhythm, and you know when it’s about to end based on that. There isn’t much surprise in the Kung Fu fight, because surprise and shock are not its purpose.
As an example of the Kung Fu battle, consider this classic:
This fight is about five minutes and change, and it’s a richly choreographed and impressively performed scene. It has as much to do with real combat, however, as Grand Theft Auto has to do with actual crime. Here is my counterpoint, and, for my money, one of the most intense fight scenes in cinematic history:
This fight is ugly, brutal, and spontaneous. It doesn’t look choreographed (even though it is) and it’s hard to tell who is getting the worst of it. Is it real? Well, no, obviously not (I doubt the train compartment window would break so easily, for instance), but it isn’t a dance. This fight means business, and I find myself holding my breath every time I see it. Why? Well, it doesn’t have any signals that indicate what’s supposed to happen next. There are no piped in sound-effects to tell me who hits who harder, there is no dramatic music to tell me how I should feel. I don’t know if Bond is going to get strangled or not, despite his mile-thick plot armor. The old movies of the 60s and 70s have a lot of fights like this. Check out the old 1973 Three Musketeers with Michael York, Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, and Raquel Welch if you don’t believe me – some of the most intense swordfights in history right there, and all because they worked to keep them away from the kind of stage stylization that has become common in modern movies. The violence is spontaneous and unpredictable, ugly and fast, and it’s hard to tell when the battle is going to end and how. I like that. I honestly miss that stuff in movies today, since it seems everybody needs to have their five minute ‘I punch you but it doesn’t hurt until the music’s right’ scene.
Let’s have a little less theatrics and a bit more drama in our fight scenes. That’s all I’m asking.
The journey is a sacred trope in the fantasy genre. It dates all the way back to the Odyssey, or perhaps even earlier – the hero’s journey as mirrored in their physical traverse across the hills and dales of their world. Where would fantasy and science fiction be without Frodo’s quest into Mordor, Taran’s quest for the Black Cauldron, Paul Muad’Dib’s journey into the deserts of Arrakis, and so on and so forth?
The hero’s journey, be it quest or ordeal, mirrors something essential in each of us. The metaphor for life here is implicit – hell, occasionally it’s explicit. With every step, we change. Not so many journeys end precisely where you expect them to. As Bilbo once said:
It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.
When we’re young, especially, this journey seems large and imposing. As we grow older, it changes – our journeys still seem long, but less terrifying. Mystery overcomes majesty; we get lost within our own lives, searching for that magical trinket that got us out here in the first place. Maybe we find it, maybe we don’t. In the end it hardly matters.
I’m in the midst of writing a sequel to a novel I haven’t even published yet. It’s perhaps foolish of me, a waste of my time. Yet I cannot help it; Tyvian Reldamar’s story speaks to me on many levels. Alandar occupies such a defined shape in my mind, it is as though I have lived there. How could I not want Tyvian to wander its wagon-rutted roads and gleaming spirit engine tracks, pondering the possibility and necessity of his own redemption? So, I have spent the past 100 pages guiding him across the fractured counties of Eretheria, hatching his plans and keeping ahead of his responsibilities, his friends in tow. His journey is one that asks just how long can we skate through life before deciding to make a stand. Before deciding that something does matter to us and that something in this world is important enough to fight for.
That’s not all it is, though. No journey is so single-minded, just as no college road-trip is ever really about where you’re going. It’s about the friends you take with you, the stories you tell, the secrets you keep among yourselves, and the way you change your perspective on things. To watch Frodo get worn down by the weight of the One Ring is to also watch Sam rise up and grow strong. Conan’s quest for greatness is eclipsed by his longer, more difficult quest for wisdom and understanding. It does not come with the crown of Aquilonia, nor with the loss of that same crown. It comes in the small places, in the quiet moments. It is not in the achievement, but in the struggle.
This, too, can be said of my own journey. This novel I write, the stories I publish, the queries I send – this is the time of growth, of change. This is where it counts. All of us have such journeys, and we must make them. Step out that door; see where you are swept.
Lately I’ve been trying out a variety of contemporary sci-fi authors that deal with various aspects of the Singularity. I think it’s sad to admit, but I have yet to be able to finish one. The last one I tried was Charles Stross Accelerando, a book which I recommend you do not read unless you find long strings of technobabble to be as hip and cool as Stross seems to. My current battle is with David Brin’s Existence, bought when I heard an interview with him online in which he had a discussion about the future of humanity that I found intriguing. I read the description of the book and it also sounded interesting. It is interesting. So was Stross, honestly. So what was the problem?
None of these books seem to have characters. If they do have characters, the characters exist primarily as mouthpieces by which the author can convey all the interesting thoughts they have and that they speak about at length in NPR interviews. The thing is, though, that such discussions, while interesting, do not make for a good story. At least, they don’t for me.
A story is about a person or, more rarely, as small group of people. They can live in as bizarre a universe as you please, but ultimately I, the reader, am interested in them only insofar as I am emotionally compelled by their conflict. The emphasis there is on their conflict – as in the character(s), individually. I am not really motivated by the plight of humanity in general. Am I interested? Sure. Believe me, I have many of thoughts about this myself, but I know that I can’t just write a novel that does nothing but talk about humanity at large without weaving such a discussion into the idiosyncratic problems of a specific individual. To do otherwise makes your novel didactic, preachy, evangelical. It wears on me when I feel that I’m reading a book that’s trying to do nothing more than engage me in debate. If I wanted that, I’d read non-fiction or attend conferences. When I’m reading a novel, I expect entertainment. I expect a protagonist with a problem I want to see resolved, not a series of placeholder people meant to do nothing more than paint a picture of what they think humanity is/will be like.
Now, this doesn’t mean I object to stories with defined and discernible points or arguments to be made (I prefer these to the completely ‘pointless’ stories that populate fantasy and scifi), but it does mean I expect your message to be a little more subtle. If I’m reading a book with a rotating cast of 6 main characters, none of whom have anything clearly to do with one another, and all of them apparently present to act as expository mouthpieces for your new universe, I am going to get frustrated. I am not reading speculative fiction for ‘slice of life’ scenes in imaginary worlds; I’m reading it for the exploration of character and conflict in unusual circumstances. This connects, if indirectly, to my frustration with certain long-running fantasy series (The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire, etc.) that have decided to put an emphasis on a persistent world rather than on the resolution of conflict. There is only so long I am going to wait for catharsis/denouement before I get bored, no matter how fascinating the subject matter of the fantasy/scifi world. If I suspect that there is no catharsis to be had because there is no dramatic tension to be released (because there are no characters that I am attached to or interested in), I am going to put the book down. If, however, you keep all that stuff in there and weave your issues into that conflict with a degree of subtlety, then you’ve just written a pretty damned incredible book.
Of course, I’m just one guy talking, here. I suppose there are a lot of folks (particularly in scifi) who really love those stories where all they really do is watch the world turn according to the author’s whim and various characters just kind of pop in and out. Come to think of it, I can think of authors who did this fairly well (Asimov and Clarke chief among them), but in all of those instances the plight of the hero was still central to the plot, no matter if the author was less interested in that plot than in the themes they were exploring. Anyway, I’m still fighting with Existence and, to its credit, it’s starting to improve a bit. If I have to keep sitting through radio talk-shows in the novel or attend conferences and actually listen to the speeches the guys are making, I don’t know if I’m making it through. If you wanted to publish a lecture series, Mr. Brin, you could just do that. I’d read it. Just don’t dress it up like an adventure story and expect me to applaud.
Like a lot of writers, I’m really good at doing lots of work on projects that have nothing to do with the project I’m supposed to be working on. It’s a kind of constructive procrastination, I guess, and it has its uses. Lately, while my short story projects are a bit stalled and the novel I’m working on plods along at a moderate pace, I’ve been spending entirely too much time fleshing out the land of Nyxos, a setting for future stories, novels, etc..
The primary, operative element of information about Nyxos is that all the power in this world, all the sorcerous might and arcane ability, finds its genesis in dreams. Dreamstuff can be made into physical objects; dreams can be spied upon, invaded, and even taxed. Some species live more in dreams than they do in ‘reality’ and, indeed, the line between the two is often held into question. A lot of this is really rough, mind you, but that’s the gist of it.
The primary villain in the world is the Oneirarch, the Dream Tyrant, who ‘taxes’ the dreams of his subjects to both keep them in line and to build his own power. He is something out of a nightmare – not seen, but glimpsed in the corners of nightmares. He is a presence felt, but not known. His priests maintain a fleet of dreamships - powerful vessels of pure dreamstuff that sail the skies of Nyxos, imposing the Onierarch’s will through the terrifying violence of nightmares-made-real.
But as I develop these concepts, I’m left with the question: Of what shape should the dreamworld take? The closest analog in fantasy literature I know of is Tel’aran’rhiod, which is from Jordan’s Wheel of Time - a world of dreams that is unified into a coherent, if malleable, landscape that loosely mirrors the real world. This is a kind of ‘universalist’ approach to dreams (i.e. we all visit the same dreamworld while we dream, we just lack the skills to navigate it). On the other end of the spectrum we have the world of dreams as set out by Inception, wherein the dreamworld is not a universal landscape but rather an idiosyncratic construction of an individual’s subconscious. Each dreamer is unique, each dream has its own unique foibles, and each is a reflection of individual will rather than collective belief.
To some extent, this seems to find us floating between the poles of none other than Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. These two giants of psychoanalysis explored the importance of dreams in our psychological landscape, and while they share many of the same ideas, there are key differences. The most significant, perhaps, is the fact that Jung sees dreams as plugged into a kind of collective subconscious – an amalgam of myth and religious folklore that permeated the subconscious of all people and was shared between them. This, of course, is more in line with Tel’aran’rhiod than the dreamscapes of Inception. Freud, meanwhile, sees dreams as reflections of problems felt by the dreamer in the waking world (and these problems he saw as frequently sexual in nature). Jung agrees with his former teacher to a point (i.e. that dreams reflect waking problems), but takes it one step further to insist that the dream isn’t mere wish-fulfillment caused by some conscious issue in need of resolution, but is itself an entity worthy of independent consideration. To paraphrase this paper by Brlizg on the matter, whereas Freud might wonder what caused a dream and how to fix it, Jung wondered what the dream itself meant on its own terms.
This connection between dreams and the real world and the connection between one person’s dreams and another’s is something worthy of personal reflection as well as a direction for fantastic extrapolation. It’s something I’m going to need to study at greater length, at any rate, before Nyxos is ready to go.
Now, back to more pressing writing projects.