Little Stories

For some months, I have been having trouble with Writer’s Block, especially when trying to write fiction. But here’s the thing: as soon as I decided to refocus this blog on 5th Edition D&D, I have written over 8,000 words — I know, that is not a lot compared to many of you, but compared to the 0,000 I was writing before, it sure is. A small portion of that has been my Guardians of the Galaxy review, but the majority has been writing game related articles. At first I was surprised,a nd then I was concerned: am I incapable of writing fiction? Have I exhausted my ability to create stories? Don’t get me wrong: I love game writing. I cut my professional writing teeth on game writing, for White Wolf Publishing’s Exalted and for Sword & Sorcery Studios’ Gamma World d20. But real life intervened and it has been a very long time since I have done any professional game writing. And, if I am being honest, I do not foresee a career in writing game material at $.04 per word.

 

Then, something occurred to me: the little articles I have been writing here for D&D 5E are stories. More specifically, they are made up of many little stories. I am not a game designer — they do math and play test things and generally make games work correctly. I am a game writer — I come up with some wacky stuff that makes for a fun experience around a table with a bunch of your friends. When I write about Fantastic Fountains, Vicious Monster Variants, or Pommel Stones of Power, what I am really doing to creating a handful of small stories in each of those articles and asking you, the reader and game player, to jump into that story. I could limit my Vicious Variants to a couple of sentences adjusting the monsters’ game statistics — after all, the stated goal is simply to provide more utility from those creatures while awaiting the arrival of the official D&D 5E Monster Manual — but instead each one gets a couple hundred words. Why? Because tabletop role playing games like D&D are themselves stories, series of linked tales that comprise one grand epic (which may or may not end with the “heroes” in the stomach of a hungry troll).

 

Realizing this has been helpful. I know that I am not stuck in the ghetto of game writing instead of writing actual stories. I am writing stories, and it is a short step from here back into the world of prose fiction. And, just as importantly, there’s nothing wrong with being here in the first place: game writing isn’t a lesser form, and even if the pay isn’t as good, well, no one is paying for my fiction at this point either. ;)

 

Thanks for reading, and if you are enjoying what I do, don’t forget to Share and Like.

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Story versus Prose

I have been doing a lot of self reflection on my own writing and writing preferences lately, mostly in attempting to understand why I have so much difficulty. Among a number of other things, I have started to understand that, at least for me, there is a fundamental conflict between Story and Prose. Or, rather, the two vie for my time, energy and attention in the writing process itself, and the casualty is usually a completed work.

I am a disciple of Story, first and foremost. What happens — both what actually happens, and what is happening, if you get my meaning of the difference — is the point. No matter what else you are trying to accomplish with the story — to titillate, to inform, to inspire — you cannot accomplish it without the story itself. By story, I mean the arc of the tale, the beginning(s), middle(s) and end(s). Big Fat Fantasy of literary micro-fiction, the core is the same, like how a fish’s skeleton and a human’s are fundamentally alike. That is not to say that all stories are fundamentally the same, but rather that all stories must have Story to be more than mere ideas or descriptions.

That said, I also love the craft of writing, the Prose. It simply feels good to manipulate the formless ephemera of words into a real thing. A well crafted sentence is a jewel unto itself, and a well written story is a crown. It takes time and care and, most of all, experience to produce such art. It can be a frustrating process, discarding one imperfect word, phrase or sentence after another until the perfect one appears. And when it does not, the hard choice must be made between stopping everything or leaving something lesser in place and going on.

I was not fully aware of the conflict between Story and Prose, though the unnamed idea of it was often a cloud in my mind, until relatively recently when I finally read The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. The Last Unicorn is one of my favorite stories. I first saw the animated film as a child and have watched it innumerable times throughout my life. I knew the film so well, in fact, that I never bothered to read the novel. I cannot say for certain why this is; The Last Unicorn is hardly the only adaptation I was exposed to before the original material, but still I read The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings, for example. Perhaps I knew that those adaptations were incomplete or inaccurate, since Tolkien’s work inspires a kind of fandom beagle’s does not and therefore I was more fully aware of the Good Professor’s works in a way I was not familiar with Beagle’s. Or perhaps it was simply that the film was so satisfying to me, I could not imagine what value the novel might have — or worse, I feared that I would love the film better (an unforgivable crime for a young, budding writer). ¬†Whatever the cause, I only finally read the novel The Last Unicorn mere months ago. Upon doing so, I hated myself for waiting so terribly long.

Beagle’s Prose, his mastery of the language, is nothing short of amazing, rivaling the likes of Hemingway in my opinion. I found in reading The Last Unicorn that I experienced it in an entirely new way, even though the story was nearly identical to that of the film. Contrast this with The Lord of the Rings, which I am currently re-reading: Tolkien also has a mastery over his use of language (though in a very different way than Beagle), but since so much of my reading attention is directed at how different Peter Jackson’s adaptations were, I feel almost as if I am less able to enjoy the Prose because of the differences in Story.

 

Once I read The Last Unicorn and became consciously aware of the distinction in my mind between Prose and Story, I began to look at my own writing in a different way. Specifically, I started to look at why I was having such trouble finishing some stories, or producing a good version of some stories. What I began to realize is that in some cases I had a Story I wanted to tell, but was trying to tell it with a kind of Prose that does not come naturally to me, or was not a natural fit for the Story. The sort of Modernist writing style, where we describe all the actions and emotions of the character has become the expected, even demanded, form of Prose for our written fiction. This is a relatively new development, though. From ancient epics to folkloric tales to all the other media we consume, most storytelling we do is focused on the characters and events, the Story itself. One could write a 5000 word short story version of Hansel and Gretel, for example, but would it be “better” by any measure than the shorter form used to tell the events of the tale to children before bedtime? Prose is art and can be beautiful for its own sake, but it can also weigh down the Story, obscuring it under layers of unnecessary detail. I realized that in many cases, I was trying to tell a piece of folklore or talk about a series of things that happened in this imaginary place to these imaginary people, but was not, in fact, trying to “write a story” in the conventional sense.

 

The questions arises, then: is there a market for such fiction? In a world dominated by Modernist, Prose-centric preferences, is there a place for Story-telling? I worried that the answer was “no” until I realized something very important: the world of non-fiction, from magazine features to biographies, looks very much like this. When we are telling stories about what were or are or might be, involving real people, we almost invariably focus on Story rather than Prose. (This, of course, does not mean there is not a place for strong writing and a good turn of phrase.) And I realized, then, that there is no reason why that form of storytelling can’t be applied to fiction as well, and that there is sure to be a market for it in the same way that there is a market for non-fiction in that form.

Table Top Roleplaying Games as Literature

Previously, I talked about how games in general might serve as literature, but I want to focus specifically on the aspects of table top roleplaying games here. TTRPGs are primarily a hobby, enjoyed by millions (so they tell us) with varying degrees of dedication, but I would argue that they are also a narrative medium and, as such, literature. Note that I am not talking about RPG tie-in fiction or even the books written for use in and out of play, from world defining guides to adventure modules to rule books. Rather, I am referring to the play itself as well as the sort of post-play revision of that play (which I’ll talk about more later).

It is the narrative feature of TTRPGs that allow their play to be considered literature. In many cases, that narrative is shallow and/or linear, relying on overly-worn tropes and cliches. This truth, though, should not disqualify it from being considered literature, as much of what is thought of traditionally as literature is also shallow, linear, obvious and cliched. In rarer cases, the play of a TTRPG becomes something special, surprising the very people engaged in it and becoming, at least for the time they sit at the table and often for years to come, something wholly new and brilliant and engaging. Because TTRPGs rely on a collective to achieve successful play, with each participant providing not just character and dialogue but narrative structure, the literature that results resembles nothing so much as an improv troupe performing a mash up of Lord of the Rings and Monty Python’s Holy Grail.

Even so, story is achieved. What is interesting about TTRPG story development is that it is iterative in a few different ways. At its most basic level, during play, it is iterative in that occasionally decisions are reversed or results altered in order to strengthen or tighten the emerging narrative. On another level, iteration occurs during the ongoing connected adventures referred to as a “campaign” where rough edges are filed off and plot holes filled between adventures. This process is similar to the patchwork “retroactive continuity” or retconning common in comics books, with so many creators operating in shared universes with the same characters. It is smaller scale in TTRPGs, but exists nonetheless; inconsistencies and/or bad ideas are inevitable, and the campaign iterative process creates a more cohesive experience and narrative. Finally, there is an iterative process in reporting. That is, when the game is complete and the participants are telling the story of the story, ten minutes later or ten years, they refine that narrative through intentional modification and omission, reconstructed memory and post-play assessment. When a player tells you about how his 18th level paladin totally backstabbed Orcus, that is iterative narrative at work.

The problem with TTRPG play as literature, of course, is that, aside from that reporting iteration described above, there is most often no record, no text of the event. This is changing as more and more groups record their play and post it as podcasts on the internet. Especially when that play revolves around commonly shared experiences (Paizo’s Adventure Paths or beloved Dungeons and Dragons modules, for example) those recordings become very interesting documents indeed. Imagine different groups of actors all producing a version of Hamlet in one night with no script on hand, then comparing the results. There are so-called “actual play” reports common on gaming message boards, as well, and they provide a unique view into (usually) one individual’s perception of what happened during play. Those are not as reliable sources for what actually occurred, but are often much better literature to emerge out of play, as they are commonly the last step in the iteration of the story.

An on-line archive of TTRPG play, both in recorded format as well as post-play reports and transcripts, would go a long way toward establishing what happens at the table as a form of literature. I do not think it is likely that anyone would put such a transcript up for a Pulitzer, let alone that it would win, but that’s not the point. However small and niche and even weird the hobby of table-top roleplaying — of, essentially, a group of friends getting together to tell a story, with some rules and randomizers along to iron out disagreements about how things should develop in the narrative — it is, I believe, a form of literature and should be preserved and examined.