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Sunday, 6 February 2011

The craft of weaving dreams

"You have to have a formula that's absolutely strong enough to hold anything. That's where people like me are very fortunate. I have a kind of innate sense of structure, which also makes me a good mimic. It's very close to mathematics. When I wrote a computer game a few years ago, it was in some ways the easiest job I'd ever had because it's all structure, and the guys know it has to be. If you're talking to a Hollywood person they never know what they're doing structurally. They ask for changes and everything falls apart, but game people are just perfect because they know the purpose of every element."
- Michael Moorcock interviewed in The Guardian

As a writer (not in Mr Moorcock's league) I'm often hard-pressed to explain exactly what an RPG umpire ("GM" if you must) does. It's not exactly storytelling - or at least it shouldn't be. Umpires who turn up with a prepared plotline and expect players to jump through their story hoops are missing the whole point of roleplaying. If I want to do that, I can go watch a movie or read a book. In roleplaying, the player-characters are the protagonists. That means they have to be the major actors driving how events unfold. If you just want to tell stories, read to your kids.

And yet storytelling skills are used in preparing a game, in much the same way that storytellers are employed on reality TV shows: to create the possibilities of a plot that the players will inhabit and bring to life. If you're running an RPG, you should be laying the tracks just half a step step ahead of what your players are coming up with. Always fly by the seat of your pants, you'll have more fun that way.

My wife Roz, who I actually married first in a roleplaying campaign - not quite as sad as it sounds as we didn't actually meet through gaming - runs a script- and novel-mentoring agency and provides first-rate free story advice on her blog Nail Your Novel. She recently published her distilled wisdom in book form and you can get an online preview here or find the print edition on Amazon. You have no reason to trust a husband recommending his wife's book, of course, but I can testify on oath that I am not the only member of my gaming group to find it extremely useful when creating stories.

Okay, enough nepotism. Tune in tomorrow for the biggest news of the year. Yeah, I know it's still only February, but trust me. This is a bona fide scoop and you will not want to miss it! You want a hint? It's only a dice roll away.


  1. Awwww, can't you just tell us??

    If you really posted that at 01:10 today like my browser is telling me, I'm hoping that you thought you'd posted it on saturday, and 'tomorrow' actually means today... But I guess most of today is already gone.

    Now excuse me, I'm off to look up the meaning of 'nepotism'.

  2. That's 01:10 PST, James, hence 09:10 in the UK. Sorry to disappoint, but tomorrow does indeed mean Monday. I would tell you now if I could, but I am truly sworn to secrecy - and the press release on my desk says "Feb 7th". But you will get to read about it at 00:01 PST, ie 08:01 GMT.

  3. Its about the RPG or the remaining books? I can't wait!
    By the way, speaking of writing advice. One day you could tell us “the magic behind FL”. That would be an amazing entry in the blog


  4. I'd be happy to oblige, Ikaros. Though you might have to be a little more specific..?

  5. The biggest news of the year? I know: FL5-12 are going to be published next month. Right? :-)

  6. A little more specific..? OMG is about the rest of the series!
    It's Bert right? (you're not "directly telling" with a "yes")


  7. Hi Ikaros, no, I was just wondering what kind of post you were asking for, is all :)

    You mean about how we came to write the FL books? Or the way we created the world background? Or the rules system?

    Wait... is it *all* of the above?

    As for the news - just a few hours to go now. "It's only a dice roll away" has already given the game away to those in the know, and the game in question is, of course...? (A no-prize to the first person who explains that, with a bonus to whoever can tell me why it's sometimes "a dice rotl".)

  8. Hey Dave (and also Jamie since this is related to him mostly)

    Could you explain where the character Jadhak comes from? I am aware it was Jamie's old character in some games and I am curious since I use the name for a bunch of games - friends who speak Arabic told me it translates to "serious man" and that Jad is indeed a name. But where did Jamie get it from?


  9. Wait... is it *all* of the above?
    Yes, it's all of the above! Story, mechanics and practical issue in making an interconnected gamebook almost unlimited. I know it’s too much for ask, but a it would be awesome!

    Maybe a special entry with the story behind and how put in the paper a complex work as FL. I’m really interested in the story.

    PS: sorry that I didn’t understand the post

  10. Alberto, Baron Jadhak hiVriddi was Jamie's very long-running character in one of our Tekumel campaigns. He lived in the Palace of the Moon outside Jakalla.

    His name (the dh is pronounced like the th of thorough) is from the Tsolyani word for fulguration magic, though I'm sure Prof Barker derived elemnts of Tsolyani from Arabic. And the Vriddi are proud desert aristocrats, so that kind of fits.

    Targdaz and Qadarnai are also Jamie's characters who I think have found their way into his books. Kashu and Hetepek are two of mine that he has used, and Ssomu (in one of the FL books, a companion of Jadhak's) was played by Oliver Johnson.

    Jamie, anything to add to that? Like an entire post, perhaps?

    Ikaros, sorry it wasn't news about new FL books! But maybe we can make up for it with some posts along the lines you suggest.

  11. Hi Dave

    Thanks for that explanation! Its really interesting to see how characters are created and the process of forming a history/background for them (which I find to be very important if your planning to do a lot of "world building").

    Some of my favourite fictional characters of all time usually have some hefty history (either personal or if they are young, family history) and discovering it (and its consequences) over time makes for a much more engaging read!

  12. I agree, Alberto. What you get to see of a character is often just the tip of the iceberg. In Mirabilis, for example, I know all about the early life of Estelle Meadowvane and Jack Ember... their parents' pet names for them, their likes and dislikes, stuff like that. When you're creating a story you *need* to know this stuff.