Friday, 30 January 2009

inferences and inferiae

The almost penultimate post that expands on the characters & characteristics post fleshes out the first part of the inferences & relationships aspect. Inferences drawn from a character's attributes can reveal more about a character. Proficiency in sword indicates practice in some way; was there a tutor or a hidden gladiatorial past? Religious callings, personality quirks and even preferences in clothing can all reveal backstory which can lend versimilitude.

You don't need to be an improviser with mad skills to work out this stuff. Certain problem solving types tend to work to five 'why' questions about something which usually exhausts all the options and provides an explanation which can be worked with. This can be tied to the ladder of inference devised by Chris Argyris, which can be summarised as below.

1. Observable attribute.
2. Selection of data based on attributes.
3. Assumptions based on inferred meanings.
4. Conclusions based on inferences.
5. Beliefs based on conclusions.
6. Actions taken based on beliefs.

Steps 2 - 5 provide a feedback loop called a reflexive loop where beliefs can shape selection of data and reinforce those beliefs or try to fit the observable into that framework. These can help to flesh out a character by giving them beliefs consistent with their attributes. They don't need to be true beliefs either - how many villains believe they're acting for noble purposes or that they're in the right for doing something?

Inferiae are sacrifices made to deceased heroes by the Romans as tributes. They are the reason that much of the action in Titus Andronicus takes place. What sacrifices has your character made to the past? Do they hold them in reverence or are they post-modern iconoclasts believing nothing but what exists here and now is of value?

Had I realised I was going to take this route I'd have used deduction rather than inference and this post would have been called deductions & deductability. Fellow blogsmiths, learn from this tale! If you try to be clever with your posts, eventually you come unstuck!!

Sunday, 25 January 2009

cross-media and new writing arenas

Hypertext-based fiction is not a new concept but what surprises me is how pervasive some of this stuff has become. My first experience of this was The Dionaea House which blew my mind because I found it while looking for something else and lost two hours looking at the site.

Naturally those playing ARGs are probably smiling at the n00b. "Ho hum" says I while I take a look at some of the good stuff going on.. while some may not consider ourselves as cross-media mavens, you need only look at people like Joss Whedon to realise that there is something here...

A lot of interesting stuff can be found at Christy Dena's site on the 'new media'. In particular the post about possible pathways for digital writers offers fertile soil for inspiration; particularly if you're thinking about an ARG or cross-media stuff, some of those avenues may be surprising to people - live-action role play (LARP)?

Saturday, 24 January 2009

web 2.0, roleplaying games and you

Role-players find the web a fertile playground; netbooks and variant homebrew rules have been circulating since the first BBS. Yet the impact of MMORPGs like World of Warcraft are forcing traditional tabletop games to adopt similar strategies. While a number of RPGers may well be aware of the resources out there, people always miss stuff. This is what I missed recently.

Obsidian Portal - An online campaign manager/wiki/collaborative repository. Perhaps the biggest strengths of OP are it's GM only section on every page and the fact you can pull in other's cool ideas into your campaign. Like all good potlucks, the more you put in, the more you get.

Meetup - A site to arrange meet-ups. Has it's own roleplaying section.

Spielerz - A site for RPGs and gamers to arrange meetups for games. US-centric at the moment but international gamers are very welcome.

Wiggio - A nice place to organise a group. Inbuilt group calendar, chat & web conferencing, file storage and group e-mail and it's very easy to set up.

Xtimeline - A very powerful timeline-creation tool. Useful for plot timelines and historic events.

Anything else I missed? Let me know by a comment...

motives & motivation

The power of motive in a story is significant; in fact for murder mysteries it's one of the Big Three (method, motive and opportunity) which you need to create a situation. There's that number again, wonder if it's significant? Anyway... going back to the previous post on characters (a series you say?) the motives driving a character can be connected to a number of things.
  • Achievement: Goals are a popular thing to have - whether the anguished cry of Austin Powers ("Twins. Basil. Twins.") or Inigo Montoya's quest for vengeance in The Princess Bride, these are things which can drive a character into action. Tangible items can also be included (after all, why are those heroes killing monsters and taking their stuff?) in this.
  • Association:If you are part of a group, then you may have duties to perform. If you're very sweet on someone, you'll do things to be with them. Conflicts between associations can give a character depth and fragility. The power of association can also use hatred as much as love - witness Frankenstein and his creation.
  • Principles: Whether religion, ethics, morality or the need to do something; the ideals of an individual help shape their actions, possessions and personality. These principles may be mutable or inflexible according to the character and their (or other's) needs and will lead to the character facing some hard choices.
  • Power: A commodity everyone wishes they have and the essence of Campbell's Hero's Journey. Be it the earnest young Jedi trying to raise an X-Wing with the power of his mind or the vengeance of an old gunslinger on a town full of racist murderers, these stories give a sense of catharsis for those who experience the same frustrations.
  • Taboo: Not all motivations are positive; some are lines that must not be crossed or rituals to stop something hideous happening. Others are screens behind which people hide their associations or achievements in secret for fear of censure. These may have been imprinted by friends, family or associations.
Aristotle's Poetics notes that internal desires conflict with the external world in order to realise the character. Romeo and Juliet are lovers divided by a feud between the Capulet and Montagu families. A setting where intrigue and betrayal is rife may lead to the most precious thing being friendship. Which in a setting rife with betrayal may be incredible - or merely ironic.

tools & software for writers

A few tools of the trade which you may find useful for those occasions when you need to get your work done without too many distractions. Online tools and some offline tools included as usual.

online collaboration

Backboard - Feedback for uploaded media and collaborative text. Very shiny.
Plotbot - Nice screenplay tool; also a sandbox of shareable plots to play with.
Zoho Suite - Large array of collaboration tools; interfaces with Facebook.

full screen text editors

Web 2.0 aficionadoes will go to DarkCopy and try not to think about other tabs.

Offline - Windows users can use Q10 which is USB-friendly and free. I use this one myself for when I don't want to be distracted by Internet pretty-shinies and need to get flow. Mac users get WriteRoom while JDarkRoom works for anyone with Java.

online references
Bartleby - Quotations and more; including Strunk's The Elements of Style.
iTools - Dictionaries, research desk. Collates good websites into one stop.
Online Books Project - Penn University site with lots of materials.
Project Gutenburg - The largest collection of online books I know of.
Rhymezone - Rhyming dictionary/thesaurus for those who need to.

If you know of any others which you've found good, post in the comments.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

attributes and attribution

I watched Beowulf again recently and one of the things that has been remarked is that Beowulf appears boastful on his first visit to Hrothgar's hall. In context, it makes sense. The modern desire for modesty is out of place at the start of the Dark Ages when heroes had to be heroic and sway desperate kings to their cause - heroes didn't provide resumes, business cards or flashy websites. The presence of Hunferth provides a counterpoint to the hero's oratory; conflicting with the story and forcing Beowulf to shout down the friend of Hrothgar and then prove his bravery and might against Grendel.

Naturally the story shows our hero isn't making idle claims to strength, valour or determination. That's not to say he's flawless, this interpretation reveals the ambition and lust that keeps him from becoming completely sympathetic. Previous posts on characterisation help pick out Beowulf's defining characteristics. In this, both Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery provide the meat of this character and season it with modern sensibilities and poetic justice while remaining mostly faithful to the core idea of the epic. Yes, he should kill Angelina Jolie after a fierce battle - in this version, she's more a curse of temptation in high heels and gold body paint.

Beowulf is a man's man; athletic, skilled in battle, forceful in speech and a leader of warriors; his attributes are apparent. It's not until his time as king that his understanding of reputation is apparent (sparing the life of a raider so he can spread the story of how Beowulf spared him) despite believing he cannot die. This shift in tactics shows Beowulf's leadership qualities as well as acknowledging his being trapped without challenge which chafes his heroic nature. How would your hero seek to promote their deeds while remaining true to themselves? Or how will they cope with 'happily ever after' when it's not all it's cracked up to be?

This shows attributes need not just be physical qualities, they can also be personal qualities - they can inform motives (what Beowulf wants moves through the story) and attitudes. The soldiers of Denmark claim their king cannot die and this haunts Beowulf until the appearance of the dragon. This attribution of immortality haunts the king, particularly in a culture that held death in battle as the noblest end. Giving an unwanted label (attribution) to a character can drive some powerful stories.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

alternate reality game design - the basics

A slideshow from Dr. Jane McGonigal about creating alternate reality games.
Make An Alternate Reality Game!
View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: design game)
This presentation divides the process of ARG creation into 10 easy steps and includes 4 ways to make an ARG rock. The presentation is aimed at young game designers but there is distilled wisdom in these slides; particularly in playing to player strengths and socialisation of the game through different media.

Friday, 16 January 2009

characters and characteristics

Definition of characters beyond a role of 'talking wallpaper' and giving them some depth is an-often opined wish of writers and game creators alike. Here's a perspective based on my own experiences and drawing from varied sources. The time you give this process varies according to how involved the character is going to be in the story. The more you involve them, the more time you can spend on them.

1. Purpose.
What are they doing?
Corollary to that: If they aren't doing anything why are they here?

2. Impact
What do you want them to do to your audience? This can be on an emotional or intellectual level; conveying a mood or theme.
Corollary to that: If they don't, what needs to change?

3. Attributes
What capabilities do they have? This defines how your creation affects the world on their own (yes, a large army of flunkies is an attribute - and a character in their own right) This may be a literal ability to break heads or a more subtle persuasion. Your purpose and impact will suggest attributes but not everyone is the ideal tool for the job or an embodiment of betrayal; if you can build an element of conflict, this will give the character depth and determine certain actions.

4. Motives
What do they want? As with attributes, your purpose and impact may suggest ideas and again, conflict can bring depth as long as the attributes and actions of the character reflect the impact of the character. Consider how intense the motive is and what attributes the character has to get there. If you give the desperate father a knife, is he going to turn on the assassin or is he going to bide his time so he can cut everyone's bonds so his family can all escape?

5. Emotions
How do they feel? Is your relentless killer driven by hate or by fear? Again purpose and impact suggest obvious courses. Attributes and motives may suggest common emotional states for the character - if all your noir detective wants is a decent night's sleep, how do they react to another murder and the police knocking on his door at 3am? Conflict with motives and attributes can be powerful if done in moderation - have you ever wanted to do something scary?

6. Inferences & Relationships
Now you have this raw data, take a closer look at the last three. How did they get them and can you make possible connections? If your knight rides, does he ride socially and care for his horse or is that a squire's role and beneath them? Is the relentless killer driven by fear because of his physical weakness and social inadequacy? This provides backstory, versimilitude and may even suggest events to drive the purpose and impact of the character.

7. Review for fit
You've got a character with history, motives, emotions and the ability to affect the world - do they meet your purpose and intent for them? Then look at motives. This sense-check can throw inconsistencies to light - why would that glamourous socialite visit a grungy bar? Is she on a dare? Looking for some big lunk to protect her? A check for consistency can do wonders in either suggesting storylines or making sure you don't create a turkey.

Monday, 12 January 2009

more giving back to the community

Oops, I did it again.

No I haven't broken your heart (intentionally) but I've done some more open source stuff for over-busy 4th-edition D&D referees. I confess a little inspiration from George Romero's Day of The Dead in the creation of this particular one and I'm learning much more about GIMP by mucking about with the art. This was once again churned out with Open Office, GIMP, Inkscape and PDFTK Builder.

So without much more ado, welcome to the Zombie Market. Try not to get lost in it - your fellow shoppers can get a bit obsessed about your health...

Friday, 9 January 2009

where does all this stuff come from?

It's an interesting question and one rarely asked without more than some hand-waving rationale being given in response. Fleshing an answer out can take you in interesting directions, particularly if you can inject back story, cool or opportunities for future drama or explosive action. It also lets you construct versimilitude by providing hooks for dialogue and ask interesting plot questions like what happens if scarcity suddenly becomes applicable to certain commodities?

The concept of brand-name stuff is not new.

Ian Fleming and William Gibson apply brands extensively to provide flavour to their characters and settings. James Bond with his vodka martinis, Walther PPK and penchant for Aston Martin conveys concepts about the man and his habits. You have the same tools at your disposal in certain situations and like all good spices, getting the measure right can add zing to what's for consumption.

What's important is that a consequence arises from these brand selections. Bond favours the PPK as his former favourite (the Beretta) got caught in his clothing and led to him getting seriously injured. The PPK is not a big gun but is eminently concealable (useful for an assassin) and reflects well on Bond's skill that his use is effective. The tool defines the character and there's a backstory for why which seems true - this provides versimilitude; a sense of truth or reality.

Thinking about versimilitude, I was reminded of Verbal's explanation of events in The Usual Suspects, where a swathe of details provided an explanation but conceals the identity of Keyser Soze. While I wouldn't recommend pulling that stunt more than once in a story or campaign, if you're comfortable with improvisation and have the gift of the gab, it's worth a go. You could even construct a wall of stuff and practice the art of the talking point if you want to try it out.

The benefits of these choices may be implicit or explicit - the elven cloaks given to the Fellowship of the Ring were said to uber-camouflage; a useful thing when trying to sneak past large armies of orcs! They can reveal associations, have utility in themselves or show attitudes. Going back to Lord of the Rings, Frodo's mithril shirt saves him in Moria and provides a connection to Gimli by virtue of Bilbo having adventured with Gimli's family back in The Hobbit.

And as this stuff comes from somewhere, you've got a hook for future expansion. In the Harry Potter series, the best wands come from Ollivander's shop in Diagon Alley. a source of information which becomes critical in later books - providing exposition and hooks for future events involving some wands. It's a trick you can borrow to give depth and continuity.

Knowing when is enough is important - follow Shakespeare for as the talkative Polonius ironically remarks "Brevity is the soul of wit." Significant characters deserve this treatment and it's best used with moderation. For everyone to show up like they've stepped out of a catalogue is jarring - the appearance of such items needs to be controlled unless you like losing your audience in a sea of details. If it's significant, then it needs to speak up, which means tying itself to a character or to the situation at hand.

Then there's the question of scarcity (and it's evil twin superabundance). What happens when the only known supplier of mithril shirts shuts up shop? Is there someone capable of stepping in to fill the gap? What if your villain has recruited the best wand shop to her cause and has her minions equipped with flashy, effective wands? These are just a couple of extremes, you would equally be able to introduce an arms race between competing sellers.

This article only considers stuff. I'll be talking about people later...

Saturday, 3 January 2009

the edge of twilight

Concept: A modern horror RPG setting where player characters investigate strange mysteries born out of ancient myth, fringe science and infernal influence while resisting the lure of the abyss they look into; with monsters lurking at the edges and in the shadows, will they stand for humanity or fall to the lure of power and sacrifice their minds, bodies and souls to become what they fight?

Influences: 28 Days Later, 30 Days of Night, Angel Heart, Dark City, Delta Green, Dog Soldiers, Event Horizon, Fallen, Fringe, Hellraiser, Millennium, Quatermass, Phantasm, Predator, Prince of Darkness, Resident Evil, Supernatural, Terminator, The Invaders, The X-Files, The Serpent and the Rainbow, Ultraviolet, Unknown Armies, Vampire$, Warlock.

Mechanics: Simple, fast-resolution. Combat is dangerous, if you're unscathed it's a victory. Monsters are scary and superhuman monsters especially so; the temptations to become a monster yourself need to be present and provide a logical Faustian deal for players to consider.

giving back to the community with open source

Seeing this post on New Year Resolutions triggered a periodic need for self-improvement and putting something together seemed the natural thing to do.

Also I had a bunch of open-source tools that I needed to trial with a quick project. So I put together a quick bit of filler for a 4th edition D&D game involving goblins & rats. It was put together with Open Office, GIMP, Inkscape and PDFTK Builder from a USB stick connected to my PC. What surprised me was the relative speed I put something together.

The Rat's Nest is for first-timers who want to do more than go into a published module. Happy New Year! Here's something for you.
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