Thursday, July 29, 2010

Storyteller: This Is The End, My Friend

So now we’ve come to the end of my rambling. At least on this subject (because I could ramble all day about Dragon Age and the myriad reasons I’d like to kick George Lucas in the ding-ding). For now (let’s face it, I could probably talk gaming and writing forever). To recap…

Magic needs rules. Wizards need limits on their magic. Creatures need rules for what they can and cannot do. Setting the rules for your world can help with everything from plotting the story to choreographing a fight scene. Be aware of how much punch a fireball packs. Don’t be afraid of lighting your hero’s party up with friendly fire.

Maps are your friend. Creating a map of your world can help illustrate everything from trade routes to political relationships. Real world maps can be altered to fit your setting. They’re also made of awesome for reminding you what place names are, so you’re not constantly going back to your manuscript trying to remember what street the hero lives on or what kingdom the heroine ran away from.

Balance your characters. Characters need merits and flaws. They need things they excel in, and things they suck at. For every benefit you give them, take something away. Give them ninjas to fight, external and personal ninjas. As Shrek might say, characters are like onions—they need layers. Don’t be afraid to try out a character questionnaire. You never know when the heroine’s favorite flavor of ice cream might come up in a scene.

Plot happens. Sometimes your story gets away from you. Plot bunnies attack. Burning vans appear. Don’t panic! When in doubt, throw ninjas at your characters, but remember that they need to recover from every ninja attack. Action is like a video game—you proceed through the level, learn something, fight some bad guys, and then move on to the next until you reach the boss battle. After that it’s a little resolution and a happily ever after. Don’t be afraid to plot out fight scenes with whatever you have at hand, whether that be D&D figurines or marshmallow Peeps.

And no matter what you do, always remember Wheaton’s law: Don’t be a dick.

Now, to discuss what we’ve learned from all this, I bring you…the Wheel of Morality!

May your dice always roll well, may your loot always be phat, and may your xbox never suffer from the red ring of death. Good night everybody!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Interweb Tuesday: You Can't Handle the Cute

Today I bring you baby otters! So much adorable.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Storyteller: Grid Maps and Figurines: Plotting Your Fight Scenes in 3D

I have a love/hate relationship with fight scenes. I love to include them, but I hate to write them. I think it’s a hatred born of my time as a Storyteller at LARP, where on occasion we would have to try to manage fight scenes with 50+ characters. Everyone wanted to be involved in the action, and they wanted your attention right now. Thankfully when writing you only have to argue with the voices in your head, and perhaps your editor.

There are a few basics to keep in mind when writing fights. There’s a simple rhythm to it: action and reaction. If your hero throws a punch, his opponent will try to dodge it. In order to gain ground, someone has to lose it—like ballroom dancing, where one partner steps forward while the other steps back. I’ve learned a lot about the mechanics of fights from gaming. For example, in a video game such as World of Warcraft, a ring will appear when my warlock attempts to cast an area-of-effect spell, showing me where my damage will rain down holy hellfire on anything within it. I need to position that ring for the maximum effect, and that can be difficult, because you often can’t fit every monster inside of it.

This goes back to my discussion on the rules of magic. You need to know the limits of your character’s abilities. If she wants to cast a fireball, she knows that it will only hit a certain area, so she needs to be aware of where to throw it to maximize its effectiveness. Trying to plot that out in your head can be tricky when you’re adding in more variables like additional characters, their abilities, bystanders, the bad guys, and their abilities. In a RPG like Dungeons and Dragons players often use maps and figurines as a physical representation of their adventure. Below is a photo of a few of my husband’s figs arrayed on a grid map. Each space on the map equals 5 feet, so this allows a player to figure out how far he can move, how far the bad guys can move, how many of them will be affected by his spell, and so on.

(Yes, that is Raistlin Majere about to unleash hell upon that dragon, bonus points for noticing that.) But unless you are a geek yourself or you married one, you probably don’t have these things lying around the house to help you with your fight scene. Thus I bring you…Samhain Duckie versus the Evil Peep Army! (Yes, he is wearing a wizard hat, and apparently blue wizard needs Nutella badly.) These examples should help illustrate how taking a few minutes to set up a physical model can help you decide who does what to who in your fight scene, and how it plays out from beginning to end. Or it'll just be silly and vaguely entertaining. Either way, he looks cute in his hat.

Area of Effect and Position Bonuses
As I mentioned earlier, some spells, like fireballs, will affect an entire area. This is also true for other types of explosive damage like grenades. From his vantage atop the castle wall, Wizard Duckie can easily wipe out the Evil Peeps in one shot because they’re grouped together. His spot on the wall also gives him a tactical advantage—you always want the high ground, and your characters should try to get it if possible. From here he can attack them with his ranged spells, but the Peeps have melee weapons, and if they want to fight Wizard Duckie, they have to storm the castle.

Here Wizard Duckie has come down from the wall and prepares to face off with the Peeps in melee combat. Wizard Duckie has partial cover: by hiding behind the Nutella jar, he is harder to spot and harder to hit with a ranged attack like a spell or arrow. No matter how brave or overconfident your hero may be, it's always good to get some sort of cover if he's under attack. Also, though Peeps 1 and 2 can see him, Peep 3 can’t, giving Wizard Duckie full cover from Peep 3. Thus Peep 3 can’t attack him, but our wizard also can’t attack Peep 3. He could, however, cast a fireball that would hit Peeps 1 and 2. If he hid completely behind the Nutella Jar, he would have full cover from all three.

Dodge, Parry and Flanking Attackers
Mortal Kombat! Here Wizard Duckie is surrounded. He can engage the Peeps in front of him, with a chance to dodge and/or parry their attacks. Peep 3 is flanking him. Because he can’t see Peep 3, Peep 3 gets bonuses to attacking him. Nobody wants to be flanked. If you’re looking for a way to knock out your characters, this is a good way to do it. Rogues usually attack this way, burying their blades in your character’s kidneys before you can say “I took how much damage?!” Occasionally in movies you’ll see the hero managing to parry the attack of the person behind him, like “aha! I block your sword with my sword even though I didn’t know you were there, because I am just that good!” So yes, it’s been done, but I don’t recommend it. Remember, just because your characters are fighting throwaway minions who won't make it into the next scene doesn't mean that those minions won't try to take every tactical advantage they can get. Those minions want to live, even though you're going to kill them.

Charging and Attacks of Opportunity
In this scenario, the Evil Peeps stand between Wizard Duckie and the castle. To get to the castle, he’s going to have to get past them. He can break left or right, but they’ll get a swing at him as he goes by because he’ll pass through their threat area. This is the area around a character that they can reach without taking more than a step. Imagine you’re playing tag, and you have to run past the person who is It. They’re going to make a grab for you as you go by. The same goes for a fight scene. If you come close enough to reach, the bad guys are going to grab at you. Wizard duckie could charge the Peeps here, rushing them, but they’re going to swing at him when he does. He might whup them, or they might smack him down before he can take a second swing. It's often tempting just to bypass minions like these when writing a fight, because you just want to get your character from point A to point B, but the minions deserve to get at least a swing in, since you put them in there in the first place.

So those are a few fight scene basics. I hope Samhain Duckie has shown you the benefits of setting up a fight scene to help you work it out. Or if nothing else that you found him amusing. ;) Next week concludes the Storyteller extravaganza, and we will spin the Wheel of Morality and see what we’ve learned from all of this. (A special thank you goes out to my husband for helping with Samhain Duckie’s photo shoot.)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Intarweb Tuesday: I Got Your Emotional Conflict Right Here

As I may have mentioned before, I am the child of two gym teachers, and as such I'm much more likely to be "rub some dirt in it and walk it off" than "and how does that make you feel?". So there was a special place in my heart for the above commercial. ;)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Storyteller: Critical Fail: Making Your Characters Suffer

In most d20 systems, rolling a 20 is an automatic success and rolling a 1 is an automatic fail. Rolling a 1 is never good. Because I am a huge dork, I often insert a “Well they just rolled a 1” comment in whatever I’m watching when things go horribly wrong. If you’ve seen the second Dungeons and Dragons movie that was made for Sci Fi (I guess that’d be Syfy now, whatever), that’s a good example of epic fails (and also of a Dungeon Master who is an epic dick to his players)(please, don’t be that guy). The healer dies in their first fight. THEIR FIRST FRICKIN’ FIGHT. Then when they teleport somewhere their wizard fails her roll and gets her arm STUCK IN A FRICKIN’ STONE WALL. And they have to CUT IT OFF. I’m sorry, that piece of crap brings out the all caps rage in me. But, point made that it’s bad to roll a 1.

In some games that I’ve played, a Game Master has the option of torturing their players if they roll a 1. Okay, not literal torture, but they can allow the player’s action to succeed while giving them a “complication.” There is a world of trouble and suffering that can happen from a complication. The hero shoots the bad guy, but then the gun backfires and seriously injures the hero’s hand. The heroine hacks into the government computer system and finds the files she needs, but trips a security alarm and men in black are going to storm her apartment in 30 seconds. The ninja sidekick performs a complicated set of acrobatics to get across the room and through the sea of bad guys…and then falls flat on his face and knocks himself out.

There’s a Jim Butcher quote that I love to repeat that goes, “My business is making Harry Dresden suffer. And business is good.” As a writer your business is making your characters suffer. It’s the C in GMC. (Remember Goal, Motivation and Conflict? Good, you get a gold star.) :) When plotting, take a moment to ponder what would happen if your hero and heroine fail spectacularly in whatever scene they’re in. Think of Star Wars. There are lots of moments of fail in Star Wars. They escape Hoth…and the hyperdrive is broken. They escape Bespin…and the hyperdrive is still broken (or at least appears to be). It’s the “I am a leaf on the wind” moment in Serenity when the ship lands. You know that moment.

It draws out the drama. We expect, especially in a romance, that there will be a happily ever after, but your characters have to jump through all sorts of hoops to get there. Every success comes at a price. Every triumph comes with a casualty. Even if it’s a personal ninja casualty like hurt feelings instead of say a severed limb. (It’s amazing what you can live through in a video game, but I digress…) But there is a point where you can go too far, as I mentioned above about the craptastic D&D movie. You want to be mean to your characters and give them conflict, but always remember Wheaton’s law: “Don’t Be a Dick!” Don’t overdo it to the point where your readers are frustrated on behalf of your characters. Don’t be that guy.

Next week is my last post in this series before the Epic Conclusion. Gasp! I know, where did the time go? Anyway, I’ll be talking about using hex maps and figurines to help you think in 3D for fight scenes. I’ve probably lost most of you at hex maps, but I’ll be featuring Samhain Duckie versus an army of evil Peeps, so it’ll be awesome. Trust me.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Storyteller Side Quest: Constructive Annoyance

Today's side quest is brought to you by BFF Diana. These are Diana's thoughts on being a good crit partner. Please to enjoy, and I'm sure she'll answer any questions you have for her too. :)

As you've gathered by now, Robyn and I talk about writing a lot. Almost every day, in fact, we IM each other, talking about what we're writing, sharing good lines that we just wrote, cackling about the terrible things we are about to do to our characters, taunting each other during word wars, or, at the very least, talking about what we would be writing if we weren't busy hitting on Alistair in Dragon Age.

All of these conversations are important to us as writing and critique partners, but some of the most important--and most fun--conversations revolve around questions. The beginning of a recent session went something like this:

Robyn: I'm thinking about writing a story about Michael and Emily.
Diana: Can I ask questions?
Robyn: Sure.
Diana: What's life like for seers in Victorian England? When exactly during Victoria's reign is this set (she lived for freakin ever)? Is Michael Simon's first apprentice? What makes him so special? Is this going to be in London? Will Emily put chunks of masonry in her reticule?

Granted, I did pause to let Robyn give me some answers (I'll think about it, I have birth years for them, yes, dunno yet, yes, and snerk, respectively), but otherwise that's pretty much how our conversations go whenever one of us has a new idea or runs into a thorny worldbuilding or plotting problem. And getting answers really isn't the goal of question time.

Why Ask?

When I ask questions, I really don't care about getting answers. Well, sure, there's a part of me that really does want to know if Cecelia of the Silver Crescent ever does the chicken dance with toadstool pixies, but getting answers to everything isn't the goal. Ultimately, the questions I ask are a way of prodding the other person into thinking about the topic in general, nudging her or him out of a rut and into a frame of mind where new ideas can be generated. Unless there's a specific problem area that we're trying to address, starting at "What shoes is the villain wearing" and winding up at "What are the mourning rituals of this subculture" is a good thing.

Ask What?

What you ask, of course, depends on whether you're playing off of a brand-new idea with lots of possible angles or exploring something specific. Starting with the germ of an idea can be fun--that's when you can play with the wacky random questions or do in-depth worldbuilding. The former can lead to fun character touches, while the latter can lead to information that your partner needs to figure out, even if it doesn't make it into the book.

These categories are very fluid. Robyn and I once started out with a character question that led to worldbuilding, winding up back with character touches. A question about one character's siblings evolved into lengthy session on the mating habits of werejaguars: Do they have litters? Which form reproduces? Are there problems if a mother shifts during gestation? Can they cross-breed? All of that was information that was fun worldbuilding, but very little of it will end up in the finished product. (We did wind up needing to know whether our were needed to worry about birth control with a non-were!) (We really need to finish that book someday.)

When your writing partner comes to you with a specific issue to work on, you need to keep in mind not only the immediate problem, but also where the problem fits into the rest of the work. Ideally, you've been discussing the project beforehand so you're not asking basic questions to orient yourself! Earlier this evening, Robyn asked me where a new villain should be introduced--a villain so new, I didn't know much about him! We had to go through a couple rounds of questions until I understood how he fit into the story as I knew it and could ask the questions that actually led to a decision.

As an aside, when you ask your questions, it's unavoidable that your own opinions will creep in, and you may be tempted to guide your partner toward what you would write, rather than what is best for the story. Try to keep an open mind until you've exhausted all the possibilities. For the villain introduction I just mentioned, I initially was leaning toward option A, because I thought it would be better for the heroine's interactions with the hero, but once we'd explored the full situation, I suggested option B...because I thought it would be better for the heroine's interactions with the hero!

Ask How?

Channeling a three-year-old who just learned about "Why?" isn't always the best way to feel like you're being constructive--and isn't the best way to keep your writing partner from winging a can of tuna at your head. Being sensitive to your writing partner's mood, idiosyncrasies, and current writing needs is essential.

While one or two unprompted questions can be good if you've been pondering something that might need clarification, try to avoid ambushing your partner with a dozen questions at once.

Also, I ask "Am I being annoying?" a lot. When we get to a point where the answer is "Yes," I stop. Most of the time.

Concluding a Session

Ideally, question sessions are both finite and ongoing. As fun as a good round of questions can be, you do need to stop at some point and actually write! A natural time to take a break is when you hit on an idea so excellent, it must be written down immediately or it will get lost. But if you find yourself circling around the same questions or getting involved in details that no one, not even the writer, needs to know, it's probably time to stop procrastinating and get something down on the page.

When you find someone you work well with--when you are able to both nag and encourage each other in productive ways--then the questions never really stop. And it's a wonderful thing.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to ask Robyn about what one of my secondary characters should be having for breakfast. And tell her what Alistair just said about my dwarf noble's hindquarters.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Storyteller: The Burning Van: When Your Adventure Gets Away From You

I was part of the Storyteller team at our local LARP for awhile. There were 4 or 5 of us trying to manage a game that at the time was over 100 players on a busy night, so things had the potential to get out of hand pretty quick. Not only were we outnumbered, but we were each running our own plotlines. One of the more memorable occasions I was called outside to help with a scene, and for some reason I wasn’t wearing shoes, I can’t remember why. So I’m hustling down the stairs and out the door to help these players, who of course needed help right now, and the first thing they tell me is, “We want to know about the burning van.”

To which my response was, “What burning van?”

It wasn’t my plot, so I had no idea what was going on, and it wasn’t something we’d discussed during the ST meeting. I couldn’t help them, and I had to track down who could so the characters could get on with their story.

In a first draft, it’s easy to let your plot get away from you. Maybe you’re fixated on throwing bigger, stronger ninjas at your characters until they find themselves in a situation you can’t get them out of. Maybe you’re being attacked by plot bunnies who are demanding you throw in weresharks, even though your story is nowhere near water. Maybe you’ve created so much conflict between your hero and heroine that there’s no way in hell they’re going to get in the same bed—hell, even the same room.

If you hit a wall, or a burning van, in your first draft, you can find a way around it. Take a deep breath, and remember that this is what first drafts are for. You can always cut the weresharks later. Also, this is why critique partners are so important. They’re like your Storyteller team, there to help you create an engaging story that your readers will want to get lost in. A good crit partner will tell you, “Dude, no weresharks. Seriously.” Even if you’re still in the plotting stage, having someone to bounce ideas off of can be extremely helpful. (I have much <3 for BFF Diana. She’s considering writing a companion post for this about what kind of questions a crit partner should ask, so let’s hope she does.)

Short post, huh? Next week I’m talking ways to make your characters suffer through epic fails. Until then, just say no to weresharks.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Storyteller: The Impenetrable Forest: Steering Your Character Down the Right Path

Remember the story from the Storyteller intro? No? I’ll repeat:

The lonely road stretched before the band of adventurers. Impenetrable forest lined either side of the road, dark and ominous. Before them the bulk of an airship blotted out the sun, unmoving, a ladder dangling down from it in silent invitation for the adventurers to climb aboard.

“I want to go through the forest.”

“Wait, what?”

“We’re not getting on that thing. We’re going through the forest.”

“Dude, no. I just said the forest is impenetrable. Get on the airship already!”

This is paraphrased from an actual gaming experience. We argued with the DM for 5 minutes as to why we didn’t want to get on the ship, and we had good, solid reasons for why our characters wouldn’t go. Problem was, the adventure was on the ship, and if we wanted to get on with the gaming and roll some d20s, our asses needed to get on the airship. So our characters did. As gamers, we understood that if we wanted to participate in the game, we’d have to run with the DM’s plot, even if it was out of character for our characters to do so.

You may have a fabulous adventure planned for the characters in your story, but they need to have a reason to go on it, one that will seem logical to your readers. In the Quest, Reward and Ninjas! discussion, I talked about how George Lucas got Luke Skywalker out the door. Luke Skywalker, simple farm boy, is presented with a quest: rescue the princess and become a Jedi. But he doesn’t take it. Instead, he offers to help old Ben Kenobi get as far as Anchorhead, because he has responsibilities to his home and family that he’s not willing to abandon. Luke isn’t motivated to get involved until that family is murdered. Once the Empire’s evil becomes personal, he’s ready to go to war.

If you want your characters to participate in your plot, they need reasons to do so. They’re not going to hop on the plot bus without something personal that makes them get on board, something that makes sense for their character. Thus beginneth my Storyteller Side Quest: Know Your Alignment.

Okay. I didn’t talk about character alignments in the character creation section for reasons I can’t remember, but it fits in here fairly well too, because your party’s alignment often determines what kind of quests you can go on. Team Good probably isn’t going to be down with summoning demons for fun and profit. Team Evil doesn’t want to save the kingdom, they want to conquer it. In most RPGs, alignment breaks down like this: Good, Neutral, Evil. And it breaks down further into Lawful (sometimes called Orderly), Neutral, and Chaotic. These things should go without saying, but I’ll explain them anyway.

  • Lawful Good: This is your typical paladin. He’s unerringly on the side of law and order, and will enforce said laws to see justice done. Problem is, he make your party’s life hard, because if you want to do something even remotely underhanded or shady, he’ll shut you down. In Blood, Smoke and Mirrors, Lex is lawful good, because guardians are like paladins.
  • Neutral Good: Most people fall into the neutral good category; they do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. They’ll work with the law, but won’t mind breaking it if the results help someone. They’re just nice guys.
  • Chaotic Good: Want to join the rebellion? Damn the man, save Empire? (Empire Records, not the galactic empire, get your movies straight.) Then chaotic good is right for you. This is Robin Hood. This is Malcolm Reynolds. (Big damn heroes, sir. Ain’t we just?) Chaotic good breaks every law and regulation in sight to do the right thing, especially if someone’s being oppressed. Freedom fighters all the way.
  • Lawful Neutral: Lawful neutral is also very law and order, but unlike lawful good, lawful neutral won’t lose any sleep over things like social injustices. They’re all about tradition and order, and not as concerned about whether those traditions are good or evil.
  • True Neutral: This is the law of the jungle alignment. Buildings burn, people die, bad things happen, but that’s life. In my gaming experience, a lot of people want to play true neutral characters and few people can pull it off. The wiki I linked above lists Han Solo as an example, and as an ex-Star Wars fanatic I’m ambivalent about that, but it works for the Han Solo we first meet in A New Hope.
  • Chaotic Neutral: I hate this alignment a bit, because I’ve often seen it as an excuse for gamers to get away with stuff that’s bad for the party, like stealing from the party. Chaotic neutral is kind of a jerk. They do their own thing and are selfish and self-centered.
  • Lawful Evil: This is my favorite flavor of evil. Lawful evil has a plan, a cunning plan, and knows how to work the system to his or her best benefit. They’re most likely to be an evil overlord. Magneto is lawful evil. In Blood, Smoke and Mirrors, Harrison is lawful evil (for now, anyway).
  • Neutral Evil: Neutral evil is the Diet Coke of evil. They’re evil…just because. They’ll kill you if they have to, probably betray you, but it depends on what’s in it for them. The above-mentioned wiki says Sawyer from Lost is an example, but I’ve only seen the first season and really all I remember is that he looks good without a shirt. (In fact, I have a picture of him as my Lex inspiration, rawr!) ;) You’ll have to comment on whether or not you think he’s a good example.
  • Chaotic Evil: If chaotic neutral is a jerk, chaotic evil is a raging asshole. You do not want this person in your party. It’s really best to kill them on sight, and if someone wants to play one in your game, throw dice at them until they change their mind. Chaotic evil makes for a hard to understand villain, because your reader is constantly wondering what the fuck just happened.

Here’s an example of alignments and how they work. Right now I’m playing Dragon Age on our Xbox 360. I’m playing a Good character—she fights evil without promise of reward, and she just wants to save everyone because it’s the right thing to do. In my party I have Team Good: Wynne, Leliana, and Alaistair (omg, squee, I <3 him 4evar!). They approve of the Good things I do, like helping lost children and punishing criminals. They get pissy and disapprove if I say anything bitchy or refuse to help people in need. I leave Team Evil at camp—Morrigan, Sten, and Zevran—because while they’re perfectly helpful in combat, they get pissed off when I made Good decisions. I’ll work with them during my next play-through when I try an evil character.

If you’ve created Team Good in your story, they’re not going to want to do Evil plot, and vice versa. They’re also going to make the kind of decisions that Good characters make. If the villain calls and says he’s got a bomb on something important somewhere and will only disarm it if the hero shows up alone at his hideout, and he’ll kill everyone if the hero calls the cops…the hero’s going to show up alone at his hideout without calling the cops, no matter how much you yell at the TV that it’s a bad idea. Think about it. How often in TV/movies does the hero do the dumb thing because he believes it’s the right thing? Team Good plays by the rules in a code-of-honor kind of way, which is the inspiration for my favorite line from the movie Spaceballs: “Evil will always triumph because good is dumb.”

I’ve gotten some criticism for Blood, Smoke and Mirrors saying that Cat is TSTL (too stupid to live)(which is like a dagger in my heart)(seriously people, don’t use this phrase lightly, it makes authors cry, and a kitten dies every time an author cries, so please, think of the kittens) because of events in the second half of the book. To this I say Cat is not stupid. Cat is Good. If the book were a RPG, making any other choice would probably change her alignment, and despite her many flaws, Cat is on Team Good.

Next week I’m discussing what happens when your adventure gets away from you, which happens quite often in RPGs. ;)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

As you may have noticed...

No Storyteller post today, due to birthday shenanigans. (Cubs lost! Those bums. Oh well.) I should have it up tomorrow when things return to normal.