On the Value of History in Storytelling

Source: Official Marvel Website

You may have heard about a couple small films that came out this year: indie darling Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice and a little joint called Captain America: Civil War. Many have discussed these two films, both individually and in relation to one another, and many good points have been made. The long and short of it seems to be that BvS was overblown tripe and CA:CW set the new gold standard, or something to those effects anyway. I won’t belabor the point or retread well worn ground. Rather, I want to talk about what these two movies underscored for me as a viewer, a fan of the source material and a writer. Namely, how a real sense of history informs storytelling and how a thin veneer of it can be worse than none at all.

Source: Bleeding Cool

The above pages from The Dark Knight Returns, the seminal comic book by Frank Miller from which director Zack Snyder took inspiration fro BvS, underscores my thesis. The captions which present the antagonists’ thoughts ooze history between the characters, making the battle between them important far beyond its spectacle or the late night nerd sleepover question of whether Batman could ever beat up Superman. This history is earned in DKR, sprouting from decades of team-ups and crossovers between the characters. Batman and Superman were friends once and it shows. their battle is not simply about anger or revenge, it is about an ideological rift between two genuinely heroic figures. Every World’s Finest comic book and every episode of Superfriends produced was leading to this moment. At least, Miller was able to convince us of that. He did not have to wipe the slate clean in order to justify the conflict between the Big Blue Boyscout and the Dark knight Detective. Rather, that deep connection was what made such a conflict possible and compelling in the first place.

 

Similarly, the conflict between Captain America and Iron Man in Civil War was earned. perhaps not by decades of comic books but by years of big budget, very well made tent pole blockbusters. The architects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe wove each of the properties together and did not waste appearances by one character in another’s film. Moreover, the Avengers films that brought the characters together did so in a way that solidified relationships and established history. Due to the nature of film release, there is not a huge body of work in the same way there is in comics. It would have been lovely for Cap, Iron Man, Hulk and Thor to all have TV series that crossed over regularly with one another and the rest of the ensemble, but in a world where it costs hundreds of millions of dollars to do these characters justice on screen, that is a vain hope. Even so, I think the collective creative powers of the MCU managed to create that history without relying too heavily upon unrelated comics or cultural connection the way BvS did.

 

So what is the lesson? The lesson for me is informed by years of playing tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons. I know. I was equally surprised.

 

RPGs share a lot with other episodic and serial forms of entertainment such as comics, television series, long book series (ex: Dresden Files), and of course movie series. In an RPG the continuity between sessions is a major component of the fun for the players. Not only do players watch their characters grow in wealth and power, they watch the world in which their characters operate grow, with recurring villains and subplots and themes. In other words, they develop a history within the context of the campaign. That history feeds itself. Every time a recurring villain shows up or an old ally reappears, the value of that historical element increases exponentially. You know you have succeeded as a Game Master when the revelation that the bad guy behind this adventure is the party’s old enemy elicits both cheers and jeers. They players are invested in a way they cannot be when presented with new threats, no matter how cool.

 

That same is true of other forms of entertainment. Comic book movies often make the mistake of killing off the villains at the end. Writers, directors and producers think, I believe, that audiences demand closure and in an action move, closure amounts to a bullet between the eyes or falling off something exceptionally high — preferably into something fiery and/or explodey. Television and comics fare far better on this front, though even comic book inspired shows like CW’s The Flash rely heavily on the death of the villain as the climactic event. It is not an insurmountable problem, of course, as Civil War displayed: the protagonists then must shoulder the responsibility of history. If recurring villains are not on the table, then it must be recurring heroes, along with non-villainous rivals and other supporting cast, that must do the heavy lifting in this regard.

 

Ultimately, what a sense of history provides is a reason for the audience to care.  There are a lot of ways to attract and then sustain a reader or viewer’s attention, but getting them emotionally invested is much more difficult. One surefire way to succeed is to tug on those emotions tied to the history between two things or organizations or participants. Few people gave a shit about Batman fighting Superman because that conflict failed to say anything about the emotional relationship between those characters. There was no history there. The fight between Captain America and Ironman, on the other hand, was much more well received and inspired a lot more emotional investment from the audience because the people in the seats not only knew who those characters were, as they did with BvS, but actually knew those characters and their motivations and what could drive a wedge between them. They knew these things because they had been invested enough to go see, rent, own or pirate all the MCU things that came before.

 

I am not saying there is no place for stories that are told in a single unit of storytelling, whether one novel or one film or one RPG session. Rather, I am suggesting that history and its weight plays a large role in our tendency to care about the fiction we consume. Acknowledging that will make us both better consumers of storytelling and purveyors of it.

 

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The Family That Geeks Together…

 

It’s fall and that means a new TV season. The show I have most anticipated the return of is The CW’s The Flash. Not only is the titular hero one of my favorites and the first super hero I encountered in comics — by way of the 1989 television show — but it is also the best super hero show that has ever been on television. Ever. (Okay, possible exception for Batman: The Animated Series, but it is a close call.)

 

There are a lot of good reasons to love The Flash on television. The effects are wonderful. It homages the comics in a way that is both respectful and fun. The cast is amazing. The story lines are unquestionably “comic-booky” while still being well done.  It is a CW show so there are love triangles and angsty subplots, but they at least move. But most of all, the thing that makes The Flash so good is that it eschews the grim and gritty tone of its sibling show Arrow and the rest of the cinematic DC Universe. That sense of humor, fun and hope makes it a joy to watch. yes, there are dark moments and some uncomfortable story lines, but they serve to underscore the optimism inherent in the eponymous hero and the show at large, not obscure or drown it.

 

This leads me to the point of this post: I decided I wanted to watch The Flash with the kids. My son is 12 and well into the realm of PG-13 (thanks Revenge of the Sith) but my daughter is 9. While I certainly would have watched The Flash at that age, I was uncertain with her. But, I asked and she said she would like to give it a try. I “spoiled” her on the scary stuff so she knew going in and reminded her that the gun play was just pretend. She took it all in stride and even rolled her eyes at me a little (which I take as a good sign in this instance).

 

How did it go? When the pilot was over, she said — and I quote — “I wish we could take a whole Saturday and do nothing but watch this show!”

 

I already force my poor wife to watch the current season and I am hoping my son decided he would like to join us in watching Season 1, but even if it is just us, I can’t imagine a cooler way to spend some father-daughter time.

T Minus 100

As of tomorrow, September 23, there are 100 days remaining in 2015.

 

That is not an especially meaningful accounting, but since we tend to like nice round numbers I thought I would make mention of it. Is there a thing you promised yourself that you would accomplish in 2015, an unmet New Year’s Resolution, perhaps? Have you been procrastinating all year, pushing off a goal or a self imposed restriction? Well, if so, you have 100 days to do that thing.

 

Write that book. Finish that game. Lose that weight. Kick that habit. Do it. Do it now, before it is too late. Before it is… 2016.

The Dreams of Ruin: The Review

Truthfully, this will be more of an “overview” of The Dreams of Ruin by Geoff Grabowski than a review. Being friends with Geoof and having written for him, plus being a huge fan of the out there weird fiction science fantasy that populates the spaces in Geoff’s head between gardening and economics (no, really) I am not really qualified to give you an unbiased review of the book. That said, my goal isn’t to simply sell you the book either, except by telling you what it is, for real, and if that’s a thing you want to experience (and it should be) then go out there and get it. Or, well, click here.

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 The Dreams of Ruin (DoR) is a 261 page supplement for Labyrinth Lord and Mutant future, so called Old School Renaissance games published via the Open Games License by Goblinoid Games. As such, the book is compatible with most other old school rules systems, from Swords and Wizardry to OSRIC and, with a little more work, the likes of  Basic Fantasy and Castles and Crusades. It is not a complete game, but is also more than simply a setting book or an adventure. Aimed at high level (15th or higher) play it is designed to give epic heroes a run for their money.

 

Setting and Tone

The title refers to a setting element that can best be described as an inter-dimensional infestation or infection — a world ending seepage across realities that takes the form of a terrible, primeval dark forest haunted by corrupted beats, faceless puppets and hate filled unseelie Fair Folk. It is at once the villain of the piece as well as the location in which adventures take place, and due to its pan-dimensional existence it can contain elements from worlds of fantasy, science fiction and every permutation of the two together. this is the key component of the DoR from a genre standpoint: it hearkens back to the weird fiction roots of D&D, where elephant headed alien gods entertained Cimmerian barbarians and fantastic city states of the dead sat on the ruins of a billion year old Earth. In an era of fantasy dominated by Lord of the Rings and The Song of Ice and Fire on botht eh page and the screen, it can be easily forgotten that what we call the fantasy genre started out much more diverse and stranger than it appears today.

 

If you are familiar with Geoff Grabowski’s work as line devloper of White Wolf Publishing’s Exalted RPG the fusion of epic struggle and science-fantastical elements that dominated that game are here as well, though in a much more focused manner.

 

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The art of DoR is evocative of that same weird fantasy vibe. It ranges in both polish and quality but never wavers in tone. Whether it is a horned devil encased in power armor or a Puppet of Ruin (seen in the image above) massacre, the art remind the reader that this fantasy is different than the endless stream of heroic quests that have come before it.

 

In tone, the writing of DoR is generally conversational. The author addresses readers’ (presumably Game Masters) concerns directly, anticipating questions and alternating between readable prose and bullet points. He wants you to be able to understand this stuff so that you can use it in your game, which is often forgotten by game designers and authors. This book is full of strange ideas and non-standard fantastic elements and the author endeavors to get you to understand and accept those elements before moving on to the next bit. That said, it is not “simplistic” and the book does not appear to be written for the Game Master new to the craft or new to Old School games. it is safe to say that the author expects that your campaign reached the suggested high levels through actual play and therefore the GM knows how to run the game and incorporate new ideas.

 

Nuts and Bolts

The Dreams of Ruin is more than a descriptive book. The author develops a numbner of subsystems that provide concrete guidelines on how to implement the DoR into a campaign. The two most important are the rules governing how the “dark forest” manifestation of the Dreams works in play, and the rules for actually overcoming the threat of the dreams.

 

As stated above, the DoR are an infection in the world. Not surprisingly, that means it starts out small and grows in both size and virulence. In the parlance of DoR, the Dreams go through a series of Blossomings before they consume the whole world. The author lays out in meticulous detail how each blossing occurs, including tables for the size of the Dreams as they spread. In addition, each stage of the Dreams is given its own encounter tables and associated rules. It is possible using these rules to divorce the Dreams from its world ending aspects and simply use it as a very dangerous zone in the campaign world.

 

In addition to encounter tables, there are rules for the effects the Dreams have on those that travel through the forest (hint: it isn’t good) and the various sorts of entities and hazards that fill the Dreams. These are more than quick stat blocks. there is an ecosystem of terror here, with warring factions and dangerous interlopers — because of the inter-dimensional nature of the DoR, almost any sort of terror or treasure can be found within. Make no mistake, this is a truly high level threat zone and low level characters attempting to pass through, even briefly, will very likely meet a grotesquely cruel end.

 

The other major rules component covers how the player characters can actually cleanse their world of the infection that are the DoR. This is not simple task of killing a boss monster or casting a high level spell. Instead, a detailed process of research and experimentation is laid out. There are the usual assortment of new spells and magic items, but in order to “win” the player characters will have to understand the threat their world faces and then develop a method by which to counter it. It is a long process that engages players as well as their characters and gives the GM a built in system for motivating investigation and adventure. Most of all, the process is as spectacular as one would expect to be undertaken by PCs that amount to godlings themselves.  For example, one of the prescribed methods to stem the tide of the Dreams is referred to in the book as “Massive Geomancy.”

 

Final Word

The Dreams of Ruin is unlike anything currently on the market for Old School Renaissance games. It considerably expands the horizon of that particular subgenre of adventure game fantasy, inviting the audience into a world where slaying the dragon and saving the princess are barely more  interesting than doing the dishes. It embraces the weird fiction influence of the past while being wholly original. And while I will not give it a grade due to my personal relationship with its creator, I would unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone who enjoys OSR gaming and wants to try something out of this world.

 

For a few more days as of this writing you can back the Dreams of Ruin Kickstarter here. You can even get a copy of the game here beforehand and then decide that Geoff deserves your support. If you want more information, read my interview with Geoff here.

 

Happy gaming.

Stories That Are Also Stories

First, some apologetic housekeeping: I promised you all a review of The Dreams of Ruin, the apocalyptic high level OSR science-fantasy adventure supplement by my friend Geoff Grabowski, and I’ll have it soon (probably over the weekend). Between finals (yes, this old man is back in school), responsibilities as a youth baseball coach, and actual paying writing, I have been very behind on the blog. I’d have liked to make the review *this* post but truth be told this is one of my meandering thought posts, while the DoR review deserves much more thought. Thanks for your patience.

Mad Max: Fury Road is amazeballs. Go see it, immediately, even if Douchey McDoucherstein tells you not to because it might injure your manhood.  I won’t belabor either of those points — how awesome the film is, or how stupid Mens Rights Activists are — but instead want to touch on something that came up in internet forum discussion regarding the movie:

 

To keep a long story short, some folks were trying to square the precise timeline of the Mad Max films, from the original through The Road Warrior, Thunderdome and Fury Road. Two issues were giving certain forumites the fits: Tom Hardy’s relative youth compared to Mel Gibson in the role of Max, and the apparent deepening the chaos and tribalism of the milieu. In combination, these elements created an issue for some, namely that how can Max, who was a cop before the Fall, be so young in a world that has obviously been tribal long enough for the Warboys and Imperator Furiosa to grow up in Immortan Joe’s clutches? Some theories were tossed around, from Max’s home actually existing after the Fall but in a state of relative order at the time of Mad Max, too Max having been mutated by radiation to be immortal. There is even a fan theory floating around suggesting that max is in fact… well, I’ll let you go check it out if you want. it’s interesting and plausible, but not especially likely, I don’t think. Note: it’s also spoilery.

 

I prefer a different theory, that I consider to be both elegant and have big implications not just for Mad Max but a number of other franchises as well:

 

Max is, in essence, an Arthurian Myth, a composite hero from the “dark ages” immediately following the Fall. The films do not recount events that actually occurred in the setting, but rather they represent myth told around the campfires by the elders of the tribes coming out of that Dark Age into a new era of civilization. The films are narrated by survivors who witnessed the events as children or youths, likely the oldest members of the tribe. Who would be left alive to counter the claim that they were there? Maybe they were, but maybe the “true” events happened generation before even those elders. Like Arthurian myths, the stories told in the Mad Max films follow a distinct pattern: Max stumbles into the plight of the people; he is resistant to help but eventually concedes; he fights and not only helps defeat the bad guys but delivers the tribe to safety; he rides off into the sunset, never to be seen again. Tales like these would serve as the foundational stories of the tribes as they emerged out of the darkness and made the transition to actual civilization. And if the Mad Max films serve as stories for those tribes, it explains Max’s “action movie” endurance and skill, and if these stories spread from tribe to tribe over time, it explains why some of the tales seem to occur very shortly after the fall and others, like Fury Road, deep in the dark age when tyrants like Immortan Joe can have fathered a whole generation of mutant child soldiers.

 

Of course, the above is all fan wankery intended to explain away the very real world impact of creator George Miller’s changing views, the differences in budgets and special effects capabilities, and the fact of recasting Max after so long. Even so, it is suggestive of an aspect of storytelling we do no often see and I think has legs, creatively speaking: some stories — that is, narratives that we produce on paper or on the screen — are themselves stories in the worlds of those stories. Certainly it is an idea that has been used before intentionally, mostly as a way to embrace the unreliable narrator, but I am suggesting that is works as both an intentional narrative tool and as a way for fans and future writers to engage wroks, especially franchises.

 

As an example, consider the Prequel Trilogy for Star Wars. Ignoring whatever flaws one may consider those films to have as actual entertainment, they definitely change the nature the universe of the original Star Wars films. This can be explained as casting the Original Trilogy as a sort of post-apocalyptic setting, where everything gets square and textured (compared to the Prequels’ glossy appearance), but I think there is a better explanation: the Prequel Trilogy is actually the story that Obi Wan tells Luke on Degobah (as a ghost) to keep Luke focused on the mission to kill Vader. After Vader outs himself as Anakin, Luke had a crisis of faith  and Obi Wan knew that he needed to hear a story that both jived with what Vader told him but also maintained the narrative that Obi Wan, Yoda and the Rebellion had already sold. It explains why someone so vile as to murder “younglings” could “still have good in him” — in other words, Anakin never murdered the younglings (the Emperor likely did) and Luke could sense that, which allowed him to draw out the last vestiges of good in Vader. Many of the other aspects of the Prequels were likely fabricated or embellished by Obi Wan as well, because at the time Luke was still a hot headed youth who needed to hear those kinds of stories. By the start of Jedi, Luke had grown beyond the need for those “childish things” and was beginning to doubt what he had been told by both Obi Wan and Yoda. Luke may have never learned the truth, but the reality of the lies dawn on him when he visits Yoda for the last time.

 

Again, more fan wankery, but you see my point. Some stories work very well as stories within stories and actually make the properties better. It is a narrative tool we, as writers, can use intentionally and one that we, as fans, can play with to help us get more out of our favorite franchises.

Plot to Prose Ratio

Or, “Tell Me The Goddamn Story, already!”

 

Over the last week, I had the good fortune of going on a relaxing vacation with lots of time to read. I picked up a half dozen paperbacks to take with me, including Glen Cook’s The Silver Spike, Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane, Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane and a few others. On the recommendation of a friend, I started with The Silver Spike. I won’t review it here other than to say, hot damn I loved it and will be looking for more Black Company books in the near future.

 

When I finished The Silver Spike, I picked up Dragonsbane next. From the outset, I found myself having difficulty getting into it. I thought perhaps it was too big of a shift in tone from the bloody, gritty Spike, so I put it down in favor of trying Lord Foul’s Bane. I knew by geek-culture osmosis that LFB was a more cynical novel with an unlikable protagonist, so I thought it might be a better fit right off Spike. Although the tone was, as I suspected, closer to what I wanted, I was still having trouble getting really immersed in the story the same way that I had fallen into Spike. After 100 pages or so (I can be a slow learner sometimes) it struck me: neither Dragonsbane or LFB was Telling Me The Goddamn Story, at least not at the pace I wanted.

 

In other words, the Plot to Prose Ratio was way off.

 

Let me start by saying, emphatically, that the Plot to Prose Ratio (PPR) is entirely subjective. Not only does every individual person have their own preference, but any individual’s preference changes from story to story as well. That said, I also think it is universal: every reader has a PPR they prefer, even if they don’t consciously recognize it. I did not, until I was presented with back to back stark examples of works with very different PPRs.

 

The Silver Spike is a fast paced crime novel that happens to be set against a high fantasy weird fiction sword and sorcery backdrop. Relative to the actions of the characters, very little word count is given over to meticulous description and historical exposition. That is not to say Spike lacks for world building; it doesn’t. But that world building is secondary to the struggles of the characters and serves the needs of the author more than it serves the desires of the reader. That is, the complex and strange world that Cook has created is the vehicle for the story, not the other way around. In this way, the PPR of The Silver Spike is heavily weighted toward Plot. Most every word on the page moves the story forward.

 

Lord Foul’s Bane by contrast (which I will use as a counter example, since I put Dragonsbane down too early to make a fair assessment) leans more heavily toward the Prose side of the PPR. Donaldson spends a lot of words on immersive description, world building and the internal life of his anti-hero Thomas Covenant. So much so, in fact, that even a hundred and a half pages in to the novel very little has actually occurred. A trek across a wooded valley occupies thousands of words in LFB, where in Spike a sequence of similar narrative importance might have consumed a mere paragraph. In instances like these, I find myself distracted from the story in wondering how much longer before the next actual thing that matters happens.

 

Again, one’s Plot to Prose Ration preference is subjective. Some readers adore words and have a robust tolerance for long passages that enhance immersion or delve deep into character or setting. Obviously, me preferences lean the other direction, toward the flow of the narrative and the development of characters through action rather than description. I want to the author it to Tell Me The Goddamn Story.

 

None of this is to suggest that I do not appreciate well crafted prose. Rather, well crafted prose, for me, should also move the plot forward. My favorite example of this is The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. I cannot think of a more beautifully crafted novel as far as the prose itself is concerned. Beagle has a give for description and narrative device that is sadly all too uncommon. At the same time, he never wastes that talent on unnecessary padding. Each wonderful paragraph serves the larger story and not only embellishes his world and characters but propels the reader ever forward in the narrative. J. R. R. Tolkien writes similarly in The Hobbit but leans more heavily toward prose for prose sake in The Lord of the Rings.

 

When I wander into the book store (an increasingly rare occurrence, granted) and I see shelves sagging under the weight of Big Fat Fantasy series, I find myself recoiling. Having found both Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time and George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire too concerned with Prose and not concerned enough with Plot, I tend to shy away from long series of thick novels. That is too bad, because I am sure there are plenty of series in which the individual books are fast paced, plot heavy narratives (as I discovered with The Silver Spike and previously found with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files.)

vs Players: The Fine Art Being A Killer DM

save-vs-nuke

When we play Dungeons and Dragons, we are often making stories in a collaborative and improvised yet structured environment. Everyone around the table has a vested interest in enabling everyone else’s fun and producing, as a final result, a memorable sequence of events with which to bore game-store clerks and non-gamer friends for years to come. Sometimes, though, what we really want to do is crush a bunch of PCs, hear the lamentations of their players and see them driven from the table.

 

In most role-playing circles and under most circumstances, what is often referred to as “Adversarial Dungeon Mastering” is considered badwrongfun at best and Epic Level Assholery at worst. The reasons are understandable: in any traditional RPG, like D&D, there is an immense power balance between the players (and their puny characters) and the DM (and his mountains of damage dice). A DM can kill every player character on a whim.

rocksfall

The thing is, that is not fun for anyone — not even the DM. Sure, the first few times it is a blast as the players’ eyes widen with disbelief and tears begin to well up as the true existential horror of their meaningless fate dawns upon them. Unfortunately, sorrow usually turns to rage and the DM finds himself using his game screen to dodge high velocity dice.  RPGs are about agency above all and while there is some potential for value in an examination of the cruelty of an uncaring universe, most of the time maintaining that agency even in the face of certain doom is what keeps players coming back to the table.

 

There is a way to be both a Good DM and a Killer DM simultaneously and it hinges around that idea of Agency. Coupling Agency with an acknowledgement of the inherent power dynamic on either side of the screen and an honest attempt at using the rules of the game to establish some level of fairness, this concept of “Adversarial Play” can be successful and fun for everyone at the table.

 

The following list of rules are must-haves for Adversarial Play:

 

Rule 0: Player Agency Is Paramount

As stated, above all else the players must have Agency. This is more than simply control over their individual characters. Agency is the ability to make meaningful choices at all levels of game play, from in-world actions to table level interactions. Meaningful choices arise from the relationship between information and options. To put it more plainly, to have Agency players must know what the situation is and what their options in that situation are.

 

The DM is the lens through which the players view the game. As such, it is the responsibility of the DM to be clear and direct in answering player questions and in providing information to the players — whether through words, battle maps, illustrations or the funny voices he likes to practice in the shower when he thinks his roommates can’t hear him but we can, oh but we can. A DM must not engage in “pixel bitching” — that is, forcing players to be hyper specific in an attempt to catch them in a “gotcha” trap. “I search the desk for any hidden compartments,” is enough; no need for, “I tap lightly on the back panel of the third drawer down with the tip of my dagger — not the silver one, the other one — to the tune of ‘shave and a hair cut’.”

pixelbitching

 

Note: In the above example, failure by the player to indicate that she is checking first for traps is a mistake. Bombs away!

 

In short, Adversarial Play depends on fairness and restricting player Agency by limiting information flow is essentially cheating.

 

Rule 1: All Rolls On The Table

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Many Dungeon Masters employ the game screen to enhance uncertainty in the players (classic example: you search for traps and your DM rolls behind the screen and then tells you that you found no traps; did you fail or are there no traps?) In typical, non-Adversarial play, this is a fine practive. Unfortunately, though, in Adversarial Play die rolls made behind the screen undermine the trust that is essential for success. All die rolls, for the DM and players alike, should be made in the open for all to see and players should make their own rolls. The DM does not necessarily need to explicitly state the difficulty of a roll — the monster’s AC or the DC of a saving throw, for example — and in fact some game mechanics are dependent upon players making choices before the result of a roll is declared.

 

A necessary corollary to this rule is that the DM does not adjust enemy stats or difficulties during play, which is essentially changing die roll results in reverse. For good or ill, let the dice fall where they may and adjudicate the results.

 

Rule 2: All Rules On The Table

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Whatever rules are being used for the game need to be acknowledged and understood by everyone — both official rules and campaign/house specific rules. This includes rule interpretations for areas that can get “fuzzy” (like 5th Edition rules on stealth and hiding) and the occasional weird interactions and synergies between rules. Remember that rules are the purview of the DM and the DM is the final arbiter of any rules questions or disputes, but players also use the rules as part of their Agency. This is not merely a right but a responsibility: players need to know how their character works, including class abilities and spells and items, etc… It is usually worth a minute or two to look up a rule in play when there is a question, but no more than that. In these instances, the DM must make a ruling and move on — and be consistent with that ruling until time can be taken to determine the actual, official rule (if it exists).

 

Good Adversarial Play is an advanced form of play due to its competitive nature. It can be frustrating and difficult for players if the DM is not familiar with the rules. On the other side of the screen, the DM can have a tough time seeming fair when confronted with a group of inexperienced players who might not appreciate being eviscerated because they weren’t sure how the grapple rules worked. An experienced DM and a few experienced players can usually ensure one or two inexperienced players contribute and have a good time, but if the balance is too far toward inexperience the game tends to fall apart.

 

Rule 3: Victory Conditions Matter… for Players

doom

At its most basic level, Adversarial Play is a competition between players and the DM. As with any competition, there must be a point at which the competition is over and a victor is declared.

 

“No one wins in D&D,” has been a feature of the game since its inception (alternatively, “Everyone wins in D&D.”) but it really is not true. What that statement actually means is that D&D is not Risk or Monopoly in which it is picked up, played and one person won while the rest lost. D&D has always had moments of triumph and failure within the context of play — you killed the monster, you lost the girl, etc… Adversarial play is not much different, but it does bring those moments into sharper focus.

For the DM, victory comes when the players fail. While it might be entertaining to consider a scenario in which the DM wins when all the player characters are dead, it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. As stated above, it is trivially easy for a DM to kill every character. Even if the DM restricts himself in order to make such a goal “fair” the players are still thrown into the defensive position and it becomes a game of seeing how long they can hold out against an overwhelming force. This may be potentially entertaining, but not more than once.

 

Instead, victory conditions should be established for the players and their characters. With a goal to strive for — kill the dragon, recover the MacGuffin, save the prince — the players control the flow of the game and are forced to overcome the obstacles in their path. This goal should be explicit even if the method of achieving the goal is not. Like most good games of D&D, an Adversarial Play adventure should provide players with a lot of freedom in determining how to achieve their goal and creativity should be rewarded.

 

That said, remember as the DM your job is still to stymie, drive off or even destroy the player characters. Every step on their path to victory should be fraught with peril, from trap laden corridors to monster haunted chambers and strange magic tricks everywhere in between. Make them work for it, and when they fight to long or the dice fail them and a PC goes down screaming while being torn apart by rabid mutant kobolds, enjoy your moment and cackle maniacally.

 

Next Time…

 

Having laid out the above rules for running an Adversarial Play game of D&D, I will next time share a short Adversarial adventure that I think will illustrate how this kind of play can be fun for a diversion or a whole campaign. In the meantime…

dm

Where the Hell is Superman?

 

A deranged pilot points an passenger jet at a mountain and murders 150 people, each one waiting helplessly to die before the end comes. An army of terrorists raze villages, leaving literally thousands of men, women and children dead in their wake, all in the name of God. A hateful young man goes from classroom to classroom, gunning down six year old children in a bid to make a bigger splash on the front page than his “hero.”

We live in a world in which these things happen all to often, a world in which villainy and evil goes unchecked until it subsumes the 24 hour news cycle and fills our feeds and our walls and our streams. In this world, the one in which we live, the one to which we have been sentenced, we are left to fend for ourselves against the most hateful and vile of our own kind.

But there is another world, a world of our imagination, where someone is there for us. He is a savior and a hero and he stands for truth and justice in a never ending battle. For us. For peace and life and liberty.

In that world, he flies in at the last moment and puts all his might against the engines of that passenger jet and brings it safely to a landing in the Alps. In that world, he moves at the speed of lightning, pulling Ak-47s and machetes from the hands of Boku Haram militants and freezing them with a breath. In that world, he hears the gunfire as it blasts through the front door of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT and he is there, bullets bouncing off his chest, blazing eyes melting lead. In that world, Superman is there to save us from the worst of ourselves.

So where the hell is Superman in this world? In a universe of limitless possibility, where man can break the firmament with his scientific knowledge, where the power of the atom bends to our will and where we can hurl spacecraft millions of miles across space to land on other worlds, where is Superman? In a world that many believe allows for miracles, where angels deflect oncoming traffic and where gods provide winning lottery tickets, where is the Man of Steel when we so desperately need him?

Superman is the creation of our collective desire for hope in a hopeless world, for justice in an unjust world, for peace where sometimes it seems only war and pain and death surround us. He is the latest in a long line of fantastical heroes that embody not just might, but the truest virtues of the people that created them. Gilgamesh and Heracles and Karna and King Arthur and John Henry are all iterations of this hope.

But for all Superman’s super-strength, his super-hearing, his superiority, the true greatness of Superman is his super-humanity. Superman is not “Superman.” Nor is he “Kal-El” of Krypton. For all his godlike power and his alien origins, Superman is Clark Kent, the son of middle American farmers who cares deeply for people, who understands that his power, his ability to stop crashing airlines and half genocides and stop the senseless massacres of children do not exist as Deeds in and of themselves as the heroes of old might have viewed them. Rather, the deeds of Superman are merely reflections of a devotion to the Peace, to Justice, to the Good of All.

So where the hell is Superman? If we allow him to be, he is within each of us, he is an agnostic symbol of Hope, of Justice, of Peace and of true Goodness in a world that so desperately needs him. Superman is not real, not in the physical sense. But if we allow him to be, he can be real enough.

Superman vs Cthulhu: Super Heroes and Cosmic Horror

 

A new project has me thinking about how Super Heroes and Cosmic Horror interact with one another. At first blush, these two genres would seem to be mutually exclusive.

Super Heroes are ultimately symbols of optimism. Their stories are generally about normal people who, when granted powers far greater than those of their peers, seek to bring justice and peace rather than bring war or ruin. Some modern interpretations disagree, of course, but these kinds of deconstructionist views act as the exceptions that prove the rule: you would not have an Authority, for example, without Superman and Batman engaged in the neverending battles and crusades.

On the other side of the genre coin, you have the kind of existential horror exemplified by the work of H.P. Lovecraft and his many collaborators and imitators. Here, heroism is, at best, a naive notion that is quickly dispelled by despair and madness. In cosmic horror, there is no justice or peace, and even war and ruin don’t matter, for the real terror comes not from the amorphous things living just outside of our vision, but from the unfeeling and uncaring universe. Everything is sliding toward entropy and nothingness. Even the monsters are doomed. It is the ultimate expression of pessimism and nihilism.

So how do we bring these two genres together? And, more importantly, why? What can we hope to create from mixing these reagents, and how do we avoid blowing ourselves up in the process?

Is that a deep one?

 

Comic book super heroes and undulating weird horrors have cross paths many time before, of course. super heroes emerged out of the same primordial pre-pulp fiction as did Lovecraft’s work, who was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Algernon Blackwood. The violent, criminal yet essentially “good” masked heroes of the pulp era gave rise to the earliest Super Heroes (the Man of Steel owed much to the Man of Bronze, and Bat-Man was heavily inspired by The Shadow). The pulps were waning just as comics started to rise, but many of the young men (and a few women) creating those early costumed heroes had cut their genre teeth on pulp magazines like Weird Tales. Characters like Dr Fate and The Specter appeared very early on and considered great cosmic powers and elements of horror in their stories.

Super hero stories have always mined horror for villains and plots, embracing whatever monstrosities sit atop the cultural consciousness. Vampires and werewolves have always been popular, usually inspired by the Universal movie versions of those creatures, and there are a number of Frankenstein’s monster analogs and even outright uses. Zombies, the current favorite of pop culture horror, are everywhere and have devoured both the Marvel and DC universes within the last few years. And there are many comics and heroes that site squarely in a place of horror, from Marvel’s Blade and Morbius the Living Vampire to Todd MacFarlane’s Spawn to DC’s Swamp Things and more recently Justice League Dark.

From the Official Dark Horse Hellboy website.

One book in particular, though, really embraces the Lovecraftian side of horror (mixed with just everything else as well). Mike Mignola’s Hellboy — the titular character is a demon, but also a super hero — is a horror comic that does super heroics, or a super hero comic that does horror. In either case, it represents probably the most perfect marriage between the genres, and Mignola’s evocative art and tight scripting do not hurt. However, as good as Hellboy is at mixing these oil-and-water genres, in doing so it pulls the Hellboy character out of the lofty clouds of primary colors, capes and cowls and grounds him with the guns and the ever-present gritty cape analogue of the trench coat. So while we can use Hellboy as a way to start thinking about Super Heroes versus Cosmic Horror, it is just a point of beginning (but a damn entertaining one).

 

You don’t get much Super Hero vs Cosmic Horror than Starro

 

What would Superman do in the face of Cthulhu? How would Batman react upon discovering the Shadow Over Innsmouth? Could Captain America maintain his sanity when confronted by vast uncaring cosmos via the Color Out of Space?

Although the trappings vary, all super heroes essentially punch things for justice: they use direct intervention against enemies that can be beaten, captured and otherwise negated. In short, super heroes can win. By definition, the terrors of cosmic horror cannot be beaten — their victory is inevitable and the only succor against that knowledge is to retreat into madness. This seems at first to be an insurmountable problem in marrying the genres.

What I think allows the super hero to continue to not only exist but to operate and even succeed after a fashion in the context of cosmic horror is their inherent optimism. Super heroes fact insurmountable odds daily — or at least monthly. A meteor rocketing toward the Earth, a virus transforming people into mindless drones, an army of hyper intelligent gorillas invading from two universes over, these are all familiar threats to the super hero, and they all threaten the very existence of mankind. Yet, the super hero soldiers on and preservers.

The only difference between those typical comic book threats and the threat posed by cosmic horror is that the latter cannot be overcome. But that is knowledge reserved for the audience. As far as the super hero is concerned, that elder thing spreadings its dark influence throughout the world and threatening to wake is just another villain to be defeated. That heroic optimism provides the hero with not only the will to face these eldritch horrors, but also at least a modicum of protection against the mind rending, soul shattering truths at the heart of cosmic horror: that we are insignificant in the fact of the enormity of time and space and that we are no more than insects to the vast and incalculable minds of the monstrosities that exist in the dark between the stars.

Moreover, even for the hero that has accepted the inevitability of the ultimate end, the true motivation of most super heroes remains: protect the innocent. In this case, it means saving potential sacrifices from cultists who would hasten the rise of the elder thing, destroying the weird alien creatures that wander aimlessly into our reality, and, occasionally, push back the timeline of that waking just a little longer. It may also mean something else, often outside the usual purview of the super hero: protecting people by hiding the truth from them, sparing them the madness that invariably comes with recognizing the futility of it all.

As different as the genres seem, I think the combination of super heroes and cosmic horror provides a lot of potentially compelling stories, without needing to tarnish or deconstruct the heroes or water down the existential threat of the cosmic horror.

 

Interactivity and Entertainment:Thoughts on Telltale’s Game of Thrones

I’ll open with Full Disclosure: I have not read George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. At least, I have not ead all of it. I did read A Game of Thrones and get halfway through its sequel, A Clash of Kings, before my interest in Martin’s characters and world building was overcome by my impatience to see the story told. Therefore, my familiarity with the series is primarily rooted in the HBO television series — which is good, because Telltale Games’ Game of Thrones adventure game exists in the television universe, rather than the literary one.

 

The first episode (we’ll get to that in a moment) is titled Iron from Ice. My intent is not to review it — there is a good one here at GameSpot for those who are interested — but suffice it to say I very much enjoyed it and found it compelling enough to write this post based on my experiences with it. I played it while on a four hour flight home from San Juan, entirely in one two and a half hour or so sitting, which makes it about as long as one might expect a film to be but it felt just about the same length as an episode of the television show.  Just a note: I played it on an iPad 2, which meant it did not look great and the frame rate was a little choppy, but I do not think it impacted the experience too negatively. I plan on purchasing the complete series for either my PS3 or my gaming PC, so neither of those issues should be a concern for future episodes.

 

Before I continue, I encourage you, if you have not played the game itself or read a thorough review, to go to the GameSpot review linked above and give it a read before continuing — or, better yet, head over to Steam, the App Store or other game retailer of your choice and pick it up and play through it once. First of all, I do not intend to recap the story in detail (though there may be more than a few SPOILERS for the game in the rest of this post) and second, I am responding to the nature of adventure games in general, Telltale games in specific and this one in particular when I am discussing “Interactivity and Entertainment.”

 

That all said, let’s get right to the core of the matter: Telltale’s Game of Thrones Episode 1 – Iron from Ice is  a story which the audience experiences both passively (just like the television show, for example) and interactively (like a more traditional video game). I know that is a little controversial to say, but allow me to explain : Iron from Ice is a story because it has all the qualities of a story (a plot, character, setting, themes, mood, and so on) and while the interactive elements are compelling, they ultimately only have a superficial impact on how the story plays out. The story elements, while mutable to an extent, still exist as prescribed by the creators, so the “game” aspect of it is mostly an illusion. This is true of most adventure games, though most adventure games rely less on story on more on discrete puzzles to engage the player. This is also true of many games that do not even fall within the genre of “adventure game.” A game like the original God of War, for example, is mostly a linear series of set pieces that must be solved in a specific manner (aka puzzles) and a specific order, with frenetic combat thrown in to make it seem more like what we usually think of as a “game.” By contrast, something like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is more game than story. There is a main quest line, of course, and a number of subplots all prescribed and populated, but all of those can be ignored in favor of looting dungeons, hunting dragons, collecting books or a million other things. While the game-story dividing line is broad and blurry (with even Skyrim only just on the “game” side compared to something like Pong) but Iron from Ice very clearly rests comfortably on the “story” side of the line. If you disagree, I encourage you to let me know in the comments or on the facebook page where we can discuss it further, but for now I am going to move forward with this definition in mind.

 

An interesting aspect of both The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones is that these properties are highly successful television shows (of course spawned from comic books and novels, respectively) with well established and consistent tones, atmospheres and styles. Both shows leverage not only the source material but deviating from the source material, and each uses surprise and even shock to enhance its storytelling (rather than to replace the need for good storytelling, as a lot of lesser shows and films will do).

Exhibit A — Reactions to the “Red Wedding” on the  Game of Thrones television show:

 

You do not get this sort of visceral response unless the audience is fully invested in the story, which in itself is a sort of interactivity in the fiction. It seems inevitable, then, that the next logical step is the more properly interactive, immersive and invested world of electronic games for these properties: it is no longer enough to gasp at the knife as it is drawn across the throat, but also to be responsible for it by choosing the words and actions of the character whose life now flows freely onto the cold stone floor.

 

In both Game of Thrones and Walking dead, the story that telltale creates centers not around the protagonists of the existing properties (though many of those characters weave in an out of the stories) and instead star new characters. These characters are carefully integrated into their respective worlds and, especially in Game of Throne, echo archetypes from the source material, but new characters provides both a sense of ownership for the player as they make choices for those characters, but also a sense of uncertainty important to their properties.  Both Game of Thrones and Walking Dead have made it clear that no one is safe. A new character otherwise unconnected from the source narrative means an unknown fate and, by that, potential doom at any point. After all, the game presents enough other characters — you control four in Iron from Ice and a fifth is strongly hinted at — that sudden death does not necessarily mean rebooting to the last save. All of this combined for a more immersive experience.

 

The interactivity fuels that immersion and is fueled by it. Often, when the player chooses dialog or an action for the character they currently control a little note appears in the corner, telling the player that this character or that noticed it or will remember it. It says to the player, “Your choices matter,” even if they really do not. And, ultimately, that the player thinks the choices matter is far more important to their enjoyment than that those choices do matter. The stories are so well crafted that the apparent choices seem to lead naturally to the outcomes presented, even if those outcomes are prescribed anyway. Therefore, the interactivity of it, the choosing it and being immersed by it and feeling connected to the characters and the world, is both the goal and the means to the goal. Yes, Telltale has a story to relate, but you are responsible for getting there and along the way you find yourself deeply connected to the events of that narrative.

 

I think there will always be a place for passive entertainment — reading a great book, watching a great movie or listening to a great album. But technology has finally gotten to a place where a whole new world of truly interactive, immersive entertainment — going for beyond simple stories and games, I think — sits before us. Telltale has managed to dare us to dip out toe into that future.