Apr 01 2012

When a Campaign is Srs Bizness

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I gave my regular group the “Player’s Handbook” for my new campaign yesterday, and it’s a whopper: 24 pages of house rules, cultural and linguistic notes, carefully-selected full-color illustrations, lovingly-rendered photoshop maps, and an appendix that goes all Silmarallion. In short, this is not a beer-and-pretzels game, this is a heavy-duty RP campaign.

Alas, the first thing I had to do, was nix a player’s character concept, which is something I really dislike doing, but in this case had to be done. This particular player loves to play outliers, but is an excellent player and usually makes them work, so I try to accommodate him when I can. For a regular dungeon-crawling game I would have allowed the character without blinking an eye. But this time the concept in question was kind of a “three strikes” problem: I just couldn’t reconcile it with the “facts” of the setting, the underlying philosophy of the game, or the themes of the campaign.

This game, with its detailed background and carefully-crafted world, is in some ways a return to my gaming roots. Once upon a time, the only kind of games I ran were set in detailed homebrew worlds usually used The HERO System, so characters were carefully built with custom abilities and hard-wired disadvantages (“Psychological Limitation” was always one of my big favorites). And really, that’s the kind of game I love best… but it’s been a long time since I was able to pull one off. It takes a lot of prep work, and a lot of concentrated mental energy, but when it works it really works well.

I have for the past several years been working in more or less the opposite mode of that, trying to minimize my prep time and do as much “off the shelf” as possible, and the results have sometimes been just fine, but have tended to leave me unsatisfied, which led to my decision last year to drop gaming. So when the itch to do a really immersive, Big Damn Campaign, I was initially resistant… but the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. So I finally decided that if I was going to do it, I was gonna go the Full Monty, as they say. There’s no point in putting in the amount of work required to do half the campaign I want, and not putting in the amount of work required to do the whole thing.

I found it very interesting, therefore, when Gnome Stew this past week posted a piece called No More Average Campaigns, which echoed my own thoughts very closely.

I think that if you looked at the table play alone, you would have agreed the campaign was average. There was laughing, there was action and drama, and people were paying attention. At the same time, there were no raised voices in excitement, no long term character plans, no in depth role playing. It was quite average.

I realized that I was putting a lot of effort into this game, and getting very little return in terms of increased player engagement and excitement. It was frustrating, and after one of our hangouts one of my players asked me, “Why do you want to run an average game, when the next game could be great?”

He was right. If I was going to invest my time to run something, why not run something great? Run a campaign that everyone is going to be excited to play. A campaign that has everyone talking between games, and dying to get back to the table to play the next session. So the next morning I killed my All For One game and announced that I was running Corporation (again).

Of course, there’s a big risk here; I might be the only one in the group who’s excited by this idea. Or the group might just not gel. Or having to come up with histories and lineages and proper elvish terms for things all the time might wear me down. There’s any number of things that could kill this new game.

On the other hand, it could be awesome… and that’s my target. We’ll see if I can hit it.

-The Gneech

Mar 22 2012

The “My Dwarves Are Different!” Trap

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(Apologies to my long-suffering beta readers, who’ve probably seen more than they care to on this subject already!)

With some linguistic foundations in place, and using the materials I’d already prepared for the game before my detour into Elvish, I’m ready to start actually populating this setting with stories.

The first thing that comes to mind is reviving my “homecoming hobbit” story, and in fact the character (“Not-Dead” Darby Sandalthorn) features prominently in the background material of the setting-as-campaign-backdrop. I fully intend to start writing stories about this character in the upcoming months, possibly to post here, definitely with the intention of gathering into a book of “Jack the Giant-Killer”-style tales. (The one big sticker there is: do I use the premises for RPG scenarios first and then write the stories, or just write ’em, knowing that my players will read them and that I therefore can’t use them for RPG scenarios? That remains to be seen.)

However, I’ve also been making an effort to look at the setting as more than just a backdrop for my displaced halfling and a weekly D&D game. I’ve tried to make this a setting that would support both big stories and small ones, depending on the kind of story I want to tell. I have at least one very, very epic tale in mind that makes poor little Darby look like a pebble on the beach of time, which could also fit nicely in this setting, but that requires a lot more meat to be put on the setting’s bones.

To that end, as I’ve worked I’ve tried to keep one eye on the big picture, while sketching in all the little details about where Darby lives. And I also cannot ignore certain realities of both the culture we live in, and the fantasy market, and keep these things in my mind as well.

First of all, there’s a lot of fantasy out there. And not just that, there’s a lot of what for lack of a better term I’ll call “Tolkienian” fantasy, and as I’ve mentioned before, this is something I’m going to just have to get comfortable worth to make the story work. Darby Sandalthorn’s world has elves and dwarves and hobbits and goblins in it. It just does. Without those things, it would be a different world. There are some surface differences… my version of Elvish instead of Quenya or Sindarin, dwarves who have dark skin instead of pale, etc., but as settings go, at least on the surface, it’s pretty generic.

I thought about trying to come up with ways to address this, but in the end they all came down to what I call the “My dwarves are different!” problem. A lot of fantasy settings—gaming settings in particular, but fiction settings as well— take the standard tropes of fantasy and tweak them around a bit, then sit back and seem very proud of how “fresh and original” their setting is.

“My dwarves are different! They have blue skin and long noses!” “You call that different? My dwarves are really different! They’re lithophages who subsist on rocks and have diamonds for eyes!” “Oh yeah? Well my dwarves are even more different: they are all genetically-identical close who reproduce by mitosis!” etc., ad nauseam.

I… don’t want to mess with that. First of all, it’s the fantasy equivalent of giving every planet a different forehead and calling them aliens. Second, the only reason to use a literary trope is to take advantage of the tools that trope provides for you. If you don’t have any real use for the trope, don’t bother with it at all. So where I’ve diverged from the “generic,” so to speak, I’ve done so for specific purposes.

Does this mean my setting will be on the plain side? Possibly. But it’s also important to remember that the setting is not the story. I could come up with the most elaborate, finely-detailed byzantine clockwork of a setting, but nobody would give a damn if there wasn’t something interesting happening there. The setting is like the backdrop of a stage: it’s there to provide a context for the play, and can add all kinds of depth and beauty if done well, but it is not the play itself.

The one major exception, and admittedly an ironic one, is the !hobbits. Hobbits and the Shire (or an approximation thereof) are part of the core conception of this setting, and yet they’re the specific creation of Professor Tolkien’s and the one thing I can’t simply lift and use without lawsuit-proofing them first. Elves, dwarves, heck even powerful-but-cursed magic rings all have classical antecedents. And while folklore is chock-o-block with “little people” from gnomes to puckwudgies to the Tuatha dé Danann, none of them are hobbits and hobbits are not them, if only by virtue of not being faerie.

Of course, “halflings” have been somewhat genericized, thanks to RPGs, Willow, and the like. So I can (and will) use them without too much fear, but I have to find a way to make them mine first. This leads to the tricky task of figuring out how to adopt/adapt/assimilate them into my work without losing the core aspects that made me want to use them in the first place.

My halflings are different! They’re lithophages who subsist on rocks and have diamonds for eyes!

Hmm… no.

For now, as least for a working model, I’m sticking with fairly generic halflings. The main ideas I’m playing with at the moment are that their own word for themselves may be “hauflin” (a Scots word that roughly translates to “young adult” or possibly “that weird period when one is neither a child nor an adult”), which gets mangled into “halfling” by the big folk; and that they may also refer to themselves culturally as “dhíbir” (an Irish word which means “banished”), but this gets colloquially munged into “dibbs.” I’ve not completely settled on either of these, and I realize that it’s a sort of “theme park” approach to linguistics, but keep in mind this is just intended to be something good enough to get on with. Hopefully something better will come to me as I go.

-The Gneech

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Jun 14 2010

On the Filing Off of Serial Numbers

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Composers do it all the time: take a theme written by some other composer and go off in some new direction with it. Usually, they’re very open about it, naming their new piece something like “Variations On a Theme by Thusandsuch.” All very proper and aboveboard and with goodwill all around.

Writers, for some reason, don’t have the same luxury. Of course there is always a certain amount of pastiche going on, and anything that’s fallen into the public domain is up for grabs, but even then it’s somewhat dismissed. Somebody who writes a terrific and extremely original Sherlock Holmes story, at the end of the day, is still often pooh-poohed for not having come up with their own work.

I bring this up because for a while now I’ve been chewing on a story idea that, in an alternate universe, might be called “Variations on a Theme by Tolkien.” [1] Not, as so many modern fantasy novels are, simply taking Lord of the Rings and repackaging it, but actually taking an element of Tolkien’s work and using it as the springboard for a different story.

Trouble In the Shire!

The particular idea I have in mind was inspired largely by the Scouring of the Shire in Return of the King [2], as well as the general difficulties that Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin had in returning to their “normal” lives after the War of the Ring. My story idea involves a similar sort of idea — a Hobbit returns after a long time away and has to try to pick up the pieces of his life in a Shire that would rather not have to deal with him. It’s not epic at all — in fact, it’s a very personal kind of tale, set against a fantasy background.

To some extent, the story could be set anywhere and anywhen — my hero could be a modern American returning from Afghanistan just as easily — but the character came into my head as a halfling and is only willing to be written as such. And there is a certain uniquely Shire-like quality of this character’s home that is required for the story as envisioned to work. But here’s where the difficulty arises.

First off, obviously, the Shire is up to its woolly eyebrows in copyright/trademark protection. Were I to just bang out a book about a fuzzy-footed pipsqueak coming home to the Shire after a life of adventure and having to cope with it, Saul Zaentz (and probably Christopher Tolkien too) would be all over me with C & D letters if not lawyers looking like hungry sharks. (Assuming, of course, that I wrote this with the intent of selling, which is what I do these days, and got noticed, which I sometimes do and sometimes don’t.)

Second, as I alluded to above, such a work would be seen by many as little more than an extended fanfic. I don’t really think of it as such myself, in the same way that I don’t think of Ivanhoe as “Robin Hood fanfic,” even though there’s a major visit by the Merrie Man of Sherwood Forest himself halfway through the story. My story is its own beast, even if it takes elements of Return of the King as its launching point.

So the obvious answer, and the one I’ve been working with, is to “file off the serial numbers” and write it anyway. What was Willow Ufgood if not a Hobbit? But then that itself brings up the question, “How much filing off do you do?” Or, to put it another way, how much changing do I need to do to make the story viable, without losing the core elements that make it what it is?

Starting with the basics, for example, I have to figure what I want to do about Hobbits. Thanks to D&D, the term “halfling” has become a fairly generic term, but certainly these folk wouldn’t refer to themselves as such. To halflings, they’re just the right size, it’s everybody else who’s too damn tall. So they need a name for themselves. In Tolkien, that name was “Hobbit,” but that term also makes it very specific. My little folk, while rustic stay-at-homes with an Olde Englishe sort of bent, are not necessarily hairy-footed tobacco fiends. But whatever they call themselves (“Nelwyn!” shouts Willow Ufgood), as soon as people find out that these are diminutive country folk who are not bearded grouches in mines, they’re going to think of them as Hobbits. There’s no way around that.

The Shire, same deal. “Shire” is a real word with a very specific meaning, to wit one of the midland counties of Great Britain (such as Worcestershire or Gloucestershire) — and in fact the modern “sheriff” derives from it (being a blurred version of “shire reeve,” the king’s representative within a shire). What’s important about it for my story is that it’s a fairly remote area of farmland populated by halflings, rather than the specifics of Bag End and the Brandywine river, so I can put it wherever I want. But anywhere I put it, as long as it’s a green and pleasant land full of farming !Hobbits, people are going to think of it as the Shire. Again, no way around it.

At least Hobbits have their priorities straight.

So it’s a balancing act. To write the story the way I want it, it’s going to have these Tolkien elements in it, and the task becomes creating that (and all the baggage that comes with it) against my ability to come up with something that’s entirely my own story. If I were just going to write this as a Tolkien fanfic, I know exactly where and when, right down to the year, it would be set in Middle-earth. But I’m not writing a Tolkien fanfic, and in order to avoid accusations of such I need to come up with ways to distance it from that, even if such things aren’t really there because the story needs them, which is the part that bugs me.

I can certainly create a generic !TheShire full of charming place names and interesting characters without difficulty. But because “Variations on a Theme by Tolkien” is not something that will fly in a literary context, I also have to find ways to hide my tracks, or at least downplay them. Hopefully some of that will come up in the draft process, arising as much from my own interests and writing style as anything else. Professor Tolkien was a linguist at heart, and as a natural by-product of that, Lord of the Rings is as much a study in languages as it is a chronicle of war. Although I’m interested in languages and have a degree in English, I don’t have anything like the linguistic chops that he did; on the other hand, I have a certain postmodern sensibility that he didn’t and a strong love of individual characters reacting as normal folk might in very un-normal situations, which will doubtless inform my own work.

I’m not going to let it worry me too much, particularly not for the first draft. Thanks to the wonder of search-and-replace I can call them Hobbits all I want until some better term shows up, and chances are that if I spend a few hours playing with maps and making up history, some critical and game-changing detail will come to me. But it is something that will be lurking in the back of my mind until I come up with a solution.

-The Gneech

[1] Actually, I’ve got a handful of these that I’d like to do, including one which is so very epic that I’d have to create a Middle-earth-sized world just to hold it all. Not sure I want to tackle that one yet!

[2] Sadly, completely left out of the films, even though Tolkien himself thought of it as one of the most important parts of the story.

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