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Friday 26 February 2021

How stories emerge

Good stories arise out of what the characters do. Bad stories result when you decide on a plot outcome first and then manipulate the characters’ behaviour to reach that goal.

Showrunner Peter Gould explains how it works on Better Call Saul. And that’s the writers’ room on a TV show, where you might think they can just make the characters do whatever the plot demands. Not on a good TV show, they don't. So if you’re running a roleplaying game and you’re defining a story goal and only then going through the motions to get there, you’re not roleplaying, you’re writing – and you’re not even getting writing right.

I’ve talked before about stories as a cascade of events, the same way a series of gravitational tweaks to a ball’s velocity leads to a parabola. This was what I was trying to do with Dreams at Elixir Studios. Designing from the top down is entirely the wrong way to go about it.

(Incidentally, designing a game like that using grown-up characters in a modern town was also the wrong way to do it. The player's expectations of how human-like characters ought to behave are too high. If you want a story-creating game, start with simple animal characters and stories like you’d find in Farthing Wood. That’s my Figments concept, but let’s talk about that some other time.)

How do you encourage that cascade of events? I think the best stories arise when the rules themselves don’t address story as a goal. Take care of the details and the story will take care of itself. A good simulation system is the best narrative game.

The proof? Look around you. It’s all just physics. Real life has no story-creator processes going on at the level of the engine. Yet here’s the universe doing drama very well indeed – sometimes a little too well, as when a preening bully whips up a riot because he can’t accept he lost a fair election – and all of that is just because everyone’s acting in the moment.

I grumble about GURPS. It’s even a tag on these posts. But it’s like finding fault with an old friend. Many of our best games have sprung spontaneously out of those mechanics, which might look dry on the page but are fertile soil for stories. Like nuclear fission, GURPS if used responsibly will do whatever you need.

Maybe you’ve been put off trying GURPS because it has the reputation of being complicated? (It’s easier than physics, believe me.) The books cover everything, but you’re meant to pick the parts you need for your campaign. Admittedly I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve said to players, “We are using just the basic books, no mental disadvantages, no quirks or perks,” only to have them come back with some skill they found in a supplement. Be firm and it’ll work. Start off with GURPS Lite (which is free) and take advice from The Path of Cunning, a fine fanzine (also free) published by Roger Bell-West and John Dallman.

That and imagination are all you need, and the stories will take care of themselves.

Friday 19 February 2021

Gamebooks are growing up

Some gamebook news today, and here's one that ought to be of interest to Fabled Lands readers. Apart from the Steam Highwayman series (excellent and highly recommended btw) there haven't been a lot of open world gamebooks, in the sense of giving complete freedom to travel where you want, go back and forth without limit, and pick up whichever quests appeal to your character. But here's a new one called Alba with a post-apocalyptic setting, and it must be doing something right because in fund-raising terms it has far surpassed other print gamebooks (open world or linear) of recent times.

I haven't seen the book myself, but from the Kickstarter page it looks like it has a lot of legacy game elements such as stickers that mark items or locations on the map. (And to think players used to grumble about having to tick boxes in Fabled Lands books back in the day.)

The writing style is of  higher quality than the purple prose of yore, and it looks as if the blocks of prose between choices are longer, making this more of a weighty novelistic experience than a CRPG in book form. Think Telltale Games' The Walking Dead rather than The Witcher. Here's the author, Harley L Truslove, talking about the books.

One obvious difference from old-style gamebooks is that in Alba your character can't die. That's a gripe about FL that we still hear. Somebody on Facebook recently was disgruntled because the skeleton pirates in Over the Blood-Dark Sea had carted them off to a life of undeadtured (sic) servitude with no hope of resurrection:

It used to be that whatever happened to you was part of the story, even when that story ended in tragedy and/or horror. But those were times when PCs in roleplaying games might get killed at the drop of a bascinet, and when we could reasonably expect Bucky to stay dead. We're in different times now, and Jamie and I have taken that on board with our new Vulcanverse gamebooks, which should eventually consist of around a 4000-section adventure in which you cannot die permanently, not even if the Furies and Nemesis team up against you. The worst you'll suffer is being sent to the naughty corner (aka Tartarus) for a brief spell.

I'm being facetious, but the Don't Kill Me players are right. A single-story game (Heart of Ice, say) shouldn't require trying-&-dying till you find an optimum path through. Every time the PC snuffs it in a book like that it's a failure on the writer's part. And even in an open-world gamebook, where death might be the appropriate ending for a given character's story, it can't just be random and unavoidable. Good god, that would be too much like real life.

But it's not just the legacy features and the immunity from death that have propelled Alba to unprecedented success for a print gamebook. The main difference is that it's not the usual hokey old '80s-era D&D kind of fantasy, but instead a vivid, gritty and character-driven narrative in a setting that feels contemporary. (The excerpt is quite well-hidden on the Kickstarter page, but you can download it here.) If Alba was a TV show it'd be a talked-about cable drama, whereas most gamebooks would be a cheaply-animated Saturday morning cartoon that you dimly remembered from your childhood.

In the '80s heyday of CYOA and Fighting Fantasy, gamebooks were hugely successful. Pretty much every series was guaranteed to sell in the tens of thousands per territory. Gamebooks could still matter to a sizeable readership if they moved on from their origin as kids’ books. Interactive stories like The Walking Dead can deal with whether you’ll commit murder to save a friend. Firewatch can tackle loneliness and hope. In games from Assassin's Creed to Bioshock the player is confronted with real feelings and choices more intense than any movie.

And meanwhile gamebooks* are mostly still about which key opens which chest or which item will defeat the Big Bad. Who cares? Crosswords and sudoku already have the puzzle market covered**. It's time for gamebooks to grow up the way that computer games have. That's what makes Alba exceptional. It's about an emotional journey, as all the best stories are. Only connect, that's the way forward.

* Print gamebooks, that is. For some time now Choice of Games have been producing interactive stories with more depth in digital book format, not the least of their titles being The ORPHEUS Ruse, a superbly gripping adventure by our own Paul Gresty.

** Unless you go full-on puzzle book, that is. I'd probably quite enjoy something like Journal 29, but it has stripped out all the story. And Alex Bellos's column in The Guardian satisfies my brain-training needs.

Thursday 18 February 2021

What happened to gamebooks?

Back in the early 1980s, Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson had a smart idea. They could get fantasy games into high street bookstores (and so bring them to a much wider readership) by grafting D&D-style rules onto the branching-path stories popularized by Choose Your Own Adventure.

In fact The Fantasy Trip's solo adventures got there years earlier (and Ayn Rand beat them to it by decades, kind of) but Fighting Fantasy was the breakout hit, selling a couple of hundred thousand copies per title in Britain alone. 

Unlike the Beatles and Hugh Grant they never quite cracked the US market, admittedly, but FF and similar gamebook series sold in the millions worldwide.

Nowadays a print gamebook would be very lucky to shift five or ten thousand copies, and most don't even get close. Why is that? And is there a way for gamebooks to recapture their former popularity? Join us tomorrow to discuss it.

Friday 12 February 2021

Tony Stark's QAnon connection

If you had a Tardis and you went back two thousand years and showed the druids some examples of modern technology, I bet you they wouldn’t be impressed. They’d look at wi-fi and jet engines and antibiotics and electricity and then they’d tell you why their Mystic Meg explanation of the universe was the only true one.

You don’t even need a time machine. These people are all around us nowadays. The Earth is flat. Vaccines cause autism (and/or implant microchips). 5G causes cancer (and/or covid-19). The climate isn’t heating up. Democrats eat babies on their pizzas. The moon landings were faked. 9-11 was a government hoax. Used to be that this kind of thing was limited to a few crazies, but the internet seems to have woken up a strain of hyper-gullibility. A friend of mine was told by a publican who believes covid-19 doesn’t exist that “scepticism is good”. And so it is. But only if you can tell scepticism from cussed denialism.

Why do people snap up these myths? There are two parts to the answer. The first explains why they are looking for myths to believe. If you ask people who convert to a religion later in life (and who therefore haven’t been conditioned early on to accept it without question), the most common reason they give for converting is: “Modern life was getting me down. Everything seemed so complex. But then I discovered this faith and it makes everything simple.”

Now, your first response if you’re a real sceptic would be: “Why should a complex system have an easy answer?” People lap up an easy answer because it makes them feel safer, and their need to feel safe overrides the issue of whether the easy answer is likely to be right.

Then there’s the question of amour-propre. A lot of people who buy into conspiracy theories are not dumb, but they’re self-educated and therefore only half-educated. They’ve never been trained in logical thought, never learned to spot fallacies. They have a vested interest, in fact, in not even wanting to spot fallacies.

Here’s why: if you feel left behind, accepting a logic-defying belief puts you on a level playing field with better educated people because if logic and evidence count for nothing then experts have no advantage. When you accept the conspiracy you gain self-respect. You think you’re special. You can sneer at the “sheeple” who accept science and reason. Those idiots with their qualifications and their degrees -- you know better from "the university of life" and a few hours trawling the internet.

The internet fuels this nonsense because it’s a junk store of unfiltered claims and mislabelled data. Demented conspiracy theorists trawl through it, apply a sort of green-ink, back-bedroom, halfwit parody of expert analysis, and suddenly you have them “proving” that President Biden doesn’t have access to Air Force One or that the coronavirus genome contains a human DNA sequence.

OK, so that’s why these people are susceptible to conspiracies and where they’re getting their “information”. But why these particular myths?

I got the answer to that the other night while I was watching Iron Man 2. If you haven’t seen it – well, watch Iron Man 1 instead (and don’t for the love of reason watch Iron Man 3), but here’s the recap. Tony Stark is dying of palladium toxicity. “I’ve tried every element to power my arc reactor,” he says, “but none of them works. I need a new element.” The arc reactor keeps his heart beating, you see, so no getting rid of that.

The problem of the new element wouldn’t really be its structure, of course. There aren’t a lot of puzzles when all you’re putting together are protons and neutrons. It’s how you’d synthesize it that would be tricky. But that’s fine. Give that a pass. It’s sci-fi. The point is how Tony learns the structure of the new element, like so:

See, his dad, Howard Stark, figured it all out back in the ‘70s but didn’t have the technology to synthesize it. He left Tony a home movie in which he says, “You can do it.” He doesn’t say what the element is. He doesn’t draw a diagram or tell Tony about a file where he could look it up. It’s a gnomic hint at a deep secret. At this point the conspiracy theorist in all of us sits up.

Tony goes to his old office. There he sees the model of the Stark Expo park that his dad was standing in front of in that movie. He takes it home, randomly removes lots of buildings, and then realizes that the remaining buildings, if thought of as protons and neutrons, look like a superheavy but stable atomic nucleus. The new element!

But hang on. If his dad had figured out arc reactor tech fifty years ago, why didn’t he publish? He was a weirdly secretive guy? OK then, but this is really important and it could die with him. So why would he hide the info in a cardboard model of an expo park, and make a sly hint about it on a home movie – and just hope neither would get chucked away? He could have tattooed the nuclear structure on baby Tony’s bottom, for heaven’s sake. Or just left him a Read This file.

It’s storytelling, that’s why. Offered a trail of breadcrumbs, moviegoers don’t ask, “What’s this trail of crumbs doing here? Who put it there? Why did they?” Instead they go, “Ooh, a trail of crumbs. Better follow it.”

And that’s how conspiracies work. They weave a story. Their audience: the poor saps who feel left out by a world where you have to apply reason, keep thinking, and continually update your theories. Offer them a conspiracy with the shape of a story, however simplistic, and they’re Pavlov-conditioned to jump through the hoop you’ve held out for them and feel they’ve done something really smart.

Just as you can defend yourself from demagogues by learning to spot the tricks of rhetoric, you can defend yourself against conspiracy-peddlers by knowing the techniques used by storytellers. The same twists, reveals, and reversals that a writer uses to pull you into a story can also be employed to snare you in a dangerous delusion. The world is complicated; get over it. Simplistic answers are often wrong. But you have a brain that’s more complex than any other structure that we know of in the universe. Use it. Don’t be the druids they’re looking for.

Tuesday 9 February 2021

You won't want to miss...

We've been seeing some glimpses of Prime Games' forthcoming Fabled Lands CRPG, and shared some of Guy Sclanders' wonderful FL playthroughs, so you won't want to miss Guy taking the alpha of the CRPG for a spin. Thanks to Victor Atanasov and the team for a truly marvellous-looking game.

Part two here:

I see in the chat window that Guy was reminded of the music accompanying Igrayne's dance in John Boorman's Excalibur. Judge for yourself below. (And, Guy, you're dead right; it is the best Arthurian movie ever.) 

Friday 5 February 2021

A madeleine cake moment


When I was a teenager discovering the works of H P Lovecraft, Robert E Howard, August Derleth and all those old boys, I became obsessed with the dream of collecting Weird Tales (it had to be a complete set, obviously; dreams cost nothing) which then seemed about as hoarily remote as an Akkadian epic on unearthed pottery fragments.

Weird Tales in fact folded only a few years before I was born. Those classic authors who now seemed so far off that they brushed shoulders with Homer? They died less than four decades before I read them. Derleth in fact was still batting.

Four decades. To a teen that's like the lifecycle of Asimov's Foundation, so it was with a slight shock that I realized it's been just as long since Jamie and I first got drawn into the orbit of White Dwarf and Games Workshop. For a while Jamie was writing The Dice Men, a book about that era, for Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson. (I think he's off the project now, but you can still read an excerpt by him on the crowdfunding page till Unbound remember to delete it.)

I'm back on the Grognard Files this month talking about those far-off days. All the secrets, all the dreams. As Dirk remarks on the podcast, it's basically Games Workshop: the rock & roll years.

Wednesday 3 February 2021

Time to decompress

There seems to be a buzz around the Critical IF gamebooks, and in particular Heart of Ice. Here's yet another rave review, this time on the Solo Adventures with Livi channel. You want spoilers? OK, it ends with, "Solidly a 10 out of 10."

You can't please everybody. One comment below Livi's video was "Let the buyer beware." Yikes! Well, actually that's always good advice when picking up any book. Another comment, this time about Fabled Lands, raises an interesting point. Kosteri X said: "I found the Fabled Lands demo devoid of any emotion and all the NPCs were lifeless words. [...] A few more adjectives can go a long way of painting a scene or motif. Most story writers for board games fail to put any effort into painting a picture."

The template Jamie and I used for writing Fabled Lands was Eric Goldberg's boardgame Tales of the Arabian Nights. The descriptions therein are economical but effective, allowing Mr Goldberg to fit hundreds of quests into the space most gamebooks use for one little dungeon. Since each Fabled Lands book has to cover an entire country and allow freedom of choice and almost unlimited play, we knew we couldn't write it the same way we did books like Down Among The Dead Men or The Renegade Lord. It's like the compressed vs decompressed storytelling in comics.

I'm thinking a lot about this at the moment because I'm trying to recapture that compressed idiom for the Vulcanverse gamebooks. They're like Fabled Lands in having an open-world structure and each book being set in an extensive region. But, conscious that some readers miss the strong character relationships you get in books like Heart of Ice, I'm using much more dialogue than in Fabled Lands. So the Vulcanverse books (which I talk a bit about here) will weigh in about 50% heavier than FL even if we can keep them down to around 750 entries each. Hopefully that will strike the right balance for all tastes. You'll be able to judge for yourself in just a few months.

Tuesday 2 February 2021

Lore and Data

Tim Harford's magical Christmas specials set in the world of Legend are a treat both for us, his gaming group, and readers of the FL blog. He's run more than half a dozen such games, of which the following have been published here:

"The Holly King"

"The Dean's Folly"

"The Feast of Misrule"

"The Gifts of the Magi"

If you enjoyed those, you might want to check out the fruits of Tim's day job, the latest example of which is his book The Data Detective (in the UK: How To Make The World Add Up). I'm sure we all know somebody who sneers at statistics and imagines that saying, "You can prove anything with numbers," makes them smart. Truth is, in a world awash with deliberate misinformation, that kind of thinking just shows you're a useful idiot for the people who have a vested interest in muddying the waters of evidence and reason.

There's a detailed review in The Wall Street Journal and you can listen to a free chapter of the audiobook version here.

Tim's book provides ten tools for thinking about the world that will help you to see past the background static and the deliberate lies and understand what the real patterns are. I'd put it right alongside Robert H Thouless's Straight & Crooked Thinking -- and that's high praise indeed.