Impractical Applications: A Long Time Pausing

The short version is, I’m going on indefinite hiatus.

The long version is, I need to. I have a lot of things going on right now, but more importantly, I’ve been spending so much time writing about gaming and writing that I’ve been questioning my ability to do both, and so much time blogging that I’ve almost forgotten how to write. The time off I took in July helped, yes, but it only treated the symptoms, not the underlying issue.

So I’m going to take a break from posting for a while, clear my head, and try to get my ideas back. The archives will stay up, and I may pop in and say hi if inspired, but for now, I need a break. Take care!

Wednesday Night Writing Exercise: Beach of Bones

This is a real place; I walked it while I was out of town earlier this week. It was begging to end up immortalized in one of my stories somewhere, so I let Lian have it, and she went to a few places I hadn’t considered when I was taking that walk. At least, that I hadn’t consciously considered.

“Hard shoes,” Malora had told me. Hard shoes, for a beach with such smooth pebbles? Smooth, round white rocks, from the scrubby thick-needled evergreens right down to the shore where seagulls stood sentry and herons waded past—that didn’t seem worthy of stronger soles. When we walked on them, though, they crunched underfoot and gave under our weight—my weight, at least, as Malora seemed somehow to only move them rather than crunch them. I picked one up to see what was wrong; it was light, hollow, ridged. A dead barnacle. Barnacles deeper than the length of my finger. Barnacles from the treeline to the water. Barnacles as far as I could see. How many dead barnacles had washed up here?

The dead were not limited to the barnacles. Here and there I paused at the sight of something watching me, then realized from the flat of the head that it was a fish skull, empty-socketed, thrown aside by some messy eater; for every picked-over skull there was one that still had a spine, one that trailed flattened scales, one that might still even have had meat on it along with the inedible portions.

“A graveyard?” I asked Malora.

“A battlefield,” she replied. “A decades-long invasion. Only the dead can rule here.”

“The birds seem unbothered,” I said. The gulls were still watching us; we kept to the far side of the barnacles to avoid disturbing them. It seemed more respectful that way.

“Except for that one?” Malora asked, pointing downward. Ahead of us were a few brown feathers, an expanse of perforated white too large for any fish, and a chain of vertebrae bent over on itself. Obviously, logically, it was the work of some predator, but I could not help but imagine the creature—a heron, perhaps, bold enough to leave the water and the far-off sand and walk upon the shells. The hollows of each shell venting forth a wisp of white mist; the wisps rising, surging upon the intruder, overwhelming it, and then this.

And I walked in silence, that my footsteps would announce my presence as little as possible and my voice not at all, in the salty air, under the filtered light of the sun, and still felt as a clumsy intruder next to Malora, whose feet barely disturbed the dead at all.

Recurrences, Plot and Catch-22

We all know about recurring villains. They’re fun, they save you chargen, they exist as reasons for the PCs to get better and as targets for them to go strike at when they might be otherwise unmotivated—in short, they’re blasted useful, so we use them. Good stuff. On the other hand, that means that every time they show up before the scheduled final showdown is a time in which this chain of recurrence can be broken. I’m not going to talk about keeping the PCs from killing your recurring villain. That’s a matter of mechanics and varies by system. Instead, I’m going to look at it from another angle. If you’ve made the recurring villain too powerful than the PCs, how do you make sure you aren’t breaking things on the PC end?

(Note that I am assuming right now a storyline in which a. plot matters and b. the players are also for the most part invested in the plot as it currently stands; strange though it may sound, sometimes players will decide that a plot sounds interesting and attempt to render it doable. If my GMs, particularly the inexperienced ones, give me a choice in the matter and ask for help, I’ll cheerfully facilitate their plots up to the point that the Idiot Ball or acting OOC gets involved, at which point there is negotiation. I know perfectly well that there are people who think a GM should just let the dice fall where they may, even if one does end up with a Catch-22 leading into a TPK. If you’re one of those people, then I have other articles for you; please don’t start an argument in this one.)

On the whole, that should be pretty easy; there are plenty of ways to justify a villain sparing PCs. The villain’s emotions—hubris, unexpected attachment, whatever—or overarching plan leading him to decide it’s better that they be left alive, either on their own or as captives. Winning but only thinking they’re dead (which, needless to say, works better in lethality-optional systems like FATE or Legends of the Wulin, since it’s remarkably easy to kill someone by accident in, say, Exalted and near impossible to disable someone without killing them in D&D—unless the character is doing it on purpose, which breaks suspension of disbelief). Having an objective which is completely independent of the heroes’ lives, completing it and leaving. Being brought down to a certain point and deciding that right now, it really isn’t worth the associated risks. Deus ex allied NPC (please use sparingly).

Likewise, on the PC end, there’s an answer to this: run like heck in the opposite direction. If you can do a proper job of telegraphing to the PCs that they are outmatched, thank you very much, and if running seems possible, they might do it—at least, presupposing there isn’t some equally important reason why they feel that they can’t.

The problem is making sure, going into a fight, that whichever out you’re planning to take will actually work with your other motivations. If the recurring villain wants something from one of the PCs, then leaving them for dead leaves a massive plothole; if there wasn’t a cliff, raging fire, or similar unsurvivable situation involved, why didn’t he follow up and take what he was looking for? Likewise, if you can’t justify anything but the PCs running away, and there’s a good reason why they consider running away not to be an option, you’re going to end up at either a massive impasse or a TPK. So if you really want to have an early recurring villain run-in, then make sure you know exactly what both sides are trying to get out of whatever situation you’ve thrown the villain into, and that whatever plans you have take into account both sets of motivations before you throw in Antagonist the PCs Can’t Handle Yet. Otherwise, a plothole may be the best possible result.

Choosing a Main Character

This was supposed to have gone up a week ago. I don’t know why it didn’t.

A lot of us writers have it easy. We have one strong character idea and are ready to center a story around them, or we have a strong plot idea and just need to design a character who can handle it. Sometimes, though, you have a nice little group of decently developed characters—ordinarily a good thing, as there are few stories that cannot be improved by increasing the proportion of well-rounded, well-realized characters—but no idea which one to use as the central or the viewpoint character, and not enough of anything else to provide a tiebreaker. It’s an easy spot to get stuck at, but fortunately, there are some useful tiebreakers out there.

One trick is just to choose a situation that you expect to come up, preferably something at or near the beginning of what plot you might already have, and start writing it or plotting it from their different perspectives. This gives you a chance to compare how they approach problems, how they feel to write, how what they know affects the storyline, and just who’s the most interesting to narrate through; maybe you like this one’s voice, or you’ve found that that one makes decisions that make no sense unless you’re in her head. And sometimes, one of them will just reach in and take a story over; I had one project where the character originally designed as the original main character’s love interest got embroiled in the plot and subsequently demonstrated that her part of the storyline was a lot more interesting.

Another, if you’ve got a somewhat developed storyline, is to look at who would be the most convenient—or eliminate whoever would be most inconvenient. If you’re going to get suspense out of one particular secret, for instance, you’ll want to avoid the person who’s perfectly situated to already have the answer; if, however, you expect the opening of the plot to trade on a certain piece of knowledge or motivation, it would be silly not to focus on a character who would know or care.

If constant improvement is one of your motivations, you might also consider trying the one who is most on the edge of your comfort zone—not so far out you can’t write them, mind, but enough to make you stretch your abilities a bit.

Another thing you can consider is who you’re writing for, and whether any of your choices would have a particular advantage with the audience you want to appeal to. I definitely wouldn’t make this the first tiebreaker choice, but if you’ve gone through one or two of the other questions and are stuck between a list of about two or three strong characters, it mitigates the risk of having a main character who is audience-appealing and practically nothing else.

The big thing to keep in mind is that, unless (and even if) you’re a compulsive pre-outliner, you don’t need to make this first decision your final choice. If you choose one character now, but another demonstrates herself more interesting while you’re halfway through, it’s probably worth considering going back and revising her into the main character seat. Until it’s somewhere in the publishing phase, everything can still be fluid.

The Generic Villain vs. the Evil Overlord List, Items 60-69

The Generic Villain continues a point-by-point facedown and update of that reference material of all baddies with imperial ambitions, The Evil Overlord List.

60. Don’t use any code or password that the five year old child adviser can break in under 30 seconds. I really have nothing to add to this.

61. Either have an answer to “Why are you risking everything on such a mad scheme?”, or don’t do it. There’s not much I can add to this, either.

62. Don’t design hallways with alcoves or protruding supports that the enemy could use as cover in a firefight. This is a good point—but what happens if your people need something to use as cover because they’re the ones defending a hall the heroes are coming into?

63. Dispose of trash in incinerators, and keep them hot, not gouting flame at regular intervals. Not much more I can say here, either. Some things never change.

64. See a psychiatrist and get cured of phobias and compulsive habits. Good plan. Let me add one thing, though: just in case the psych gets compromised, don’t let them find out they’ve successfully cured you. Then, if it’s known that you had the phobias and habits, pretend to have them anyway. That way, you know the heroes are going to try to exploit them, and can take advantage of it.

65. Maps on publicly available computer terminals will indicate the execution chamber as the main control room and the main control room as Sewage Overflow Containment. The principle is good. Since the List has been out for so long, though, I’d suggest using different names, just in case you get a hero with Savvy.

66. Make your security keypad a fingerprint scanner, so it sets off alarms if someone else pushes the buttons in the appropriate order. Yes. …but I would suggest making it a silent alarm, and on those keypads where it wouldn’t screw up security too badly, let them through—into an antechamber which can contain them until your minions arrive, or possibly even serve as a deathtrap.

67. Every security camera malfunction should be treated as a full-scale emergency, no matter how common they are. Yes. And if they’re common, seriously, find out why. And get a better electrician.

68. Spare someone who saved your life in the past—but only once per time they saved yours. Sounds like a good strategy to me.

69. Ban midwives, and ensure babies are born at state-supported hospitals instead; foster orphans, don’t have them abandoned in the woods somewhere. All right, now we’ve got something I can refine. First thing, I don’t think banning midwives really helps that much, even if you do expect to need to have a child of destiny killed at some point. Better to just have all of them in your pocket instead; scholarships and training are a good start. Issuing them ‘bodyguards’ to keep tabs on them as well as defend them (people die in childbirth a lot, why take the chance of a bereaved spouse trying to take revenge, right?) would likely serve you better. Likewise, with the orphans in the foster homes, make sure the home is of reasonable quality. Abused, fostered orphans are a common demographic among heroes, well-adjusted orphans in good homes less so, and won’t you have a little extra influence if the government is known for swooping in and saving orphans from abusive foster homes on those occasions when the family sneaks past quality control?

Impractical Applications: A Choice of Main Characters

I’ve had a few projects that were meant to have multiple focal characters but, since I prefer writing in first person, ended up requiring a single main character. The question then became, who?

Back when I was working on my Almagest project, I had originally planned for my main character to be a young man, a calligrapher, by name of Tabari. He’d been meant to be something of a challenge, as all my protagonists up to that point had been female. At the time, I’d known Tabari was going to be tangentially involved with Natara the diplomat/hostage, but I hadn’t been exactly sure how.

And then came Khadijah. At first I’d developed her around the question “What would make for reasonable compatibility between the two of them?” She was an astrologer, a bit ambitious, I’d decided she was going to have ended up being taken along with Natara as an ‘honored ambassador’, their connection would give them excuses to be sending letters back and forth, and her presence there would give Tabari a little extra motivation for his part in dealing with the political situation back home…

I think that was around the time when Khadijah started asserting herself in a narrative sense. Part of the problem was that she was closer to the action; there was far more political maneuvering going on on her side of things than on his. Part was that she was just more interesting as a character—since I’d made a careful point of learning enough about her to know what Tabari saw in her, I had a better sense of her, while he was still narratively amorphous. The last was that she had a more obvious interesting arc; I wasn’t quite sure what to do with Tabari, while Khadijah offered ‘learning to be an adrenaline junkie manipulator’ as an option.

As a result, by the time I actually started writing, Tabari had viewpoint chapters planned, but Khadijah was definitely the main character.

Wednesday Night Writing Exercise: Beyond Reproach

Because of one of my library’s last batch of books, I was thinking about unwritten rules today. One of my works in progress gets most of her characterization from her society’s unwritten rules and her ability to use them to her advantage: these are the principles from which she operates.

There is a kind of person who is beyond reproach. Strike at her, and society will return the blow with three.

She does not start fights. She may stand in defense of another, who cannot raise hand or tongue for his own sake; would she be respected still if she did not? She may prevent clashes of word and of fist, may intervene in one that has begun—though she is a fool who does so in a fight she does not know she can sway—and as long as the first blow was not hers, no blood will stain her when she emerges, and the blows she has taken will be a sign of honor.

She knows the masters by heart—all three hundred and forty-seven—and wields their arguments as a scholar does his pen. History, literature, art—if it might be known, learned from, quoted, she can and will. Many assume she remembers the names of the Regnants.

She makes all that she does look effortless, simple. A project of hers that would gain sentience as soon as its last stitch was made might appear from a respectful distance to be the work of a week at most.

She puts herself together with the same complexity over simplicity that she does her projects.

No matter the dispute in which she sits, no matter the thorns it possesses, she never pricks her finger upon the artichoke*.

Most importantly, there is no rule that she does not know. Whether it is written in the great scrolls of the law or grasped as a child grasps the words of his parents, she is aware of it and pays her respects to it.

And in keeping to every code, written and unwritten, she becomes the flower of society. In doing so, she gains its favor. The arrows of her foes are turned aside; their calumnies flow off of her like water over the falls. The rules are the tools of her trade, her armor, her weapons, her sustenance, her concealment.

*Societal imagery; in this culture, artichokes are traditionally boiled and eaten during mediation. The time required ensures that the meeting is paced, and the thorns, along with the challenge to fine motor control they generally present, provide a means of saving face for a participant who loses emotional control.

Not Actually a Post

It was either post or get sleep. Things are a little crazy, between school projects and recovering from the shutdown. I need my sleep.

Apologies.

Impractical Applications: Really Not Anyone’s Scene

I talked earlier this week about what not to do in order to get a scene you don’t like to end. It’s something I’ve had recent experience with; in my Saturday D&D game, we had what I’m pretty sure was one of those scenes: our charming mixed-bag PCs attempting to determine from a captured member of the invasion force we’d kept off our boat whether there actually was supposed to be an invasion and how much the forces we were trying to avoid were involved. (The answer to the latter question was yes. This contributed to how long everything took.)

So there we were. Interrogation by suggestion spell, the guy we were talking to didn’t know much but knew enough, and then one player showed up forty minutes late and ended up rehashing most of what we’d already covered, and somewhere between that and the part where he started trying to verify in unnecessary degrees of detail that the girl the enemy was after was, in fact, the one we were guarding (the rest of the group having drawn this conclusion from much less information and moved on to other important things), things started going wrong. I can’t truly speak for the rest of the group, but I think it was safe to say that while the two players below were the most visible cases, everyone was getting frustrated; more, at least part of the problem was the fact that, this being a conspiracy-heavy game, the core of the group was more concerned with getting all possible answers out of the guy than short-term enjoyment, and the GM—good, but new, and a little oblivious sometimes, not to mention distracted from trying to keep track of five players—probably mistook at least some of that for interest in/enjoyment of the scene. That being said, it went downhill from there.

First was the dwarf’s player. This is pretty logical; you’ve got three people in varying degrees of mechanically talky, one person who tends to accidentally sabotage his mechanically talky skills—and then you’ve got the “Charisma and Wisdom? What are those?” dwarf, who has occasionally been known to keep himself out of trouble by declaring himself a weapon at the local temple so as to not be separated from his axes, and whose player makes no bones about being in it for the combat. The character wasn’t interested, the player was bored, so he wandered off to challenge one of our other new NPCs to a duel. This, admittedly, didn’t last too long, aside from the occasional “Yeah, you guys are still at it” and a good deal of handwaving; I think this was the sensible choice, though I was somewhat disappointed in the way it ended up being resolved, as I sincerely doubt the other character was good enough never to have gotten hit at all.

Then we had the cleric. We’d acquired a couple of enemy corpses because we didn’t have time to loot them (three cheers for bags of holding), so he had prepared speak with dead, and by golly, he was going to use it. Which was fine, except that every now and then he’d start going “Hey, we should start thinking about what questions we’re going to ask the dead guys.” In the middle of the interrogation. At which his character was present. Usually while one of us was trying to formulate a question. It can’t have been two and a half hours into the game when we hit the third or fourth repetition of “Can we please finish questioning this guy first?”

Not helping matters was an incident somewhere near the middle. Austrenk, my spellthief, subscribes to the Skyrim alchemy school of magical analysis; if she can’t figure out what a spell effect is by any other means, she’ll steal it and see what it does to her. (I think at this point she’s actually stolen a larger number of inconvenient magical effects than she has of beneficial ones.) This one made her extremely bored with the whole questioning procedure and desperately in need of Doing Something. Which was all right, I was getting frustrated anyway and we had two people left to carry on the investigation, except that her idea of thing to do was go provide our primary new NPC with weapons training, and for whatever reason the guy didn’t trust me to play across the overenthusiasm myself, so he just made the character kind of incompetent at the training. And despite the fact that the character had told her fellows “There’s an enchantment on this guy, I’m going to steal it, let me know if I start acting weird,” the cleric decides to intercede in this on the NPC’s behalf, which only resulted in more of the apparent incompetence being played up, which… yeah.

We were there about three and a half hours. At least two and a half of that was spent dealing with this one NPC. Honestly, we all screwed up. The dwarf’s player should probably have just asked if there was any way we could speed it up; the cleric’s player should have played one scene at the time; and the rest of us should really have admitted that we wanted to get on with it too and asked if there was any way we could just bypass the detaily bits and get the gist of our results so we could move on to determining we’d been played again and trying to explain to the new NPCs why we needed not to go where we were going. But hey—we’ve all learned, and we’ll know for next time.

Wednesday Night Writing Exercise: They and Their Weapons

I operate in worlds that do take the time to think about the relationship between a person and her favored weapon, but even with the characters for whom it’s significant, I operate more on character instinct than on understanding how it works. Tonight was as good a night as any to look for specifics.

Tuyet never really thought of her weapon as much more than another tool, same as any other inanimate object. Then again, everything that couldn’t talk back was a potential tool, and she could base her calculations on including those things that could talk as well, so paying special respect to a sharp-edged thing that simply magnified her own skills was not a priority. Particularly not a sharp-edged thing that never actually needed to come in contact with the opponent and thus took a lot longer to even consider losing its edge.

Juniper, on the other hand, was trained in a tradition in which the quality and condition of one’s weapon was as much open for judgment and prone to affect one’s reputation as her actual skill in using it. More, she’d gotten the sword from one of the few people to whom she was unswervingly loyal, and the maker was a compulsive tender of the items of those she cared about. Even she doesn’t realize that the back of her mind is weighing her companions, asking “If I die, to whom do I entrust my blade?”

Austrenk’s trainer thought of swords as things that required names and the establishment of a personal dynamic between owner and weapon. Austrenk is still attempting to reconcile this with the idea of the sword as an extension of her body and intent. The girl she’s taken it on herself to train, philosophy and all, is likely to end up even more confused than she is.

Lamora is sufficiently accustomed to trading weapons around based on who needs to do what and getting new ones through looting the corpses of the dead that the question of a special relationship between owner and weapon wouldn’t occur to her.

Most of Kiara’s throwing knives are interchangeable. There are one or two with sentimental value, that she only uses in specific situations and always has a way to recover. She takes good care of her other weapon, in large part because it is on loan from her organization, and while it is not quite worth her life, it’s getting there.

Blazing Heavens knows the name of her staff—it’s cultural, you really don’t want to insult a master by beating him up with a weapon that has no name—but does not share it unless her opponent asks. Her opponent, on the other hand, seems generally to be more concerned with the fact that she is wielding what looks like a very polished tree trunk with some degree of finesse than what name it might go by. As her creator… I still don’t know what she calls it. It hasn’t come up yet.

Liang, like Blazing Heavens, treats the name of his weapon as he does any other part of his fighting style—to be revealed in bits and pieces over the course of a confrontation, so that he can exploit every wrong conclusion his opponent jumps to in the process. It is not something that defeats his enemies, though. Defeating is the job of his teammates. It simply protects him.