BLOG: Of Dice and Pens: Ends Lead to Beginnings

It has been a long while since I posted on here, life can get in the way sometimes.

I wanted to continue looking at how a long-term tabletop RPG impacts my writing. I find I want to talk about my players choices, and my regrets.

We ended a long running game not long ago (roughly 8 months) The challenges that the players faced and the world they discovered along the way were almost always influenced by the choices they made at the table. One characters death early on was felt keenly for the rest of the campaign, with the remaining characters carrying his memory with them, and one determined to bring them back regardless of the cost. Survivors guilt you could say.

That death wasn’t predetermined as it often is in a story or novel. It was not my choice, and because of that it was so much more organic. It left everyone a little dumbfounded, myself included, frantically wracking my brain trying to come up with a route for the story to follow. People die, and they often die at the most seemingly random times. Not all of us get to fulfil our goals or potential. A sad moment, but one I’m glad for as it taught us all something.

One character returned home to a city she had lived in her entire life, the people she knew and how she interacted with them grew so naturally from the player, I was incredibly impressed. It is a special kind of storytelling when two people fall in sync and can have a conversation as two entirely made up characters without missing a beat. Her choices, and how she interpreted what I placed before her led to the creation of several criminal organisations, something I had not intended. She lost a leg in a daring dungeon escape for the betterment of others, up to that point I was always curious about her morality.

Another character left a lifetime of indentured servitude to a government body, to find out if he was truly more than a weapon, to find out if he had a place in the world. Another choice I had not accounted for. A character who delighted in the small mundane things but was shackled with blunt mentality on how to solve his problems. One could say that he became the defacto leader of the group, but his naive view of the world often led to more heartache than it helped.

This was my first pitfall.

Each character became so incredibly integral to the story that without those characters, the campaign faltered.

The early death in the campaign was not felt as keenly as we had not progressed as far. Over time the three adventurers managed to make a little light in the world, though the methods to their madness sometimes caused concern (such is D&D) Seemingly throwaway NPC’s I used to fill out the world became important to them, they created personal and business relationships where I had seen none possible.

The actions of a third player all but insured a war I had not planned. Again, how the players chose to interpret what was put in front of them drastically changed what I had pencilled in behind the screen. While the campaign did not always flow in the way I thought it would, I would not have changed a single thing. It was a wonderful experience of collaborative storytelling from everyone involved.

Four people at a table breathing life into a world, something humans have done since before written language.

Then came the last session. That was a rough one. A new player had joined the session before, a longtime friend who was keen to join the campaign. Fate it would seem had different ideas, and I would just like to apologise that he never got to see his character flourish.

We played to the climax of an unfolding war and invasion that had seen the northern tribes unite and strike south under the banner of a fanatic. The party had operated as a spearhead in the Northland, often questioning the reasoning and choices they had made that led them to this, but their choices they were. They worked behind the invaders to secure allies and destabilise the support of the raiding northerners. At a point they made the decision to return south, to confront the leader of this army. At the Battle of Brennan Bridge they secured the city and cut off the head of the snake, but at a cost. Two of the party lay dead.

I run a low fantasy setting and resurrection is rare. Both the players whose characters died decided not to seek a way to bring them back, both for different reasons. One had decided to retire the character anyway, this was to be their last session before sending the character off into the sunset and exploring other characters open to them. The other is adamantly against resurrection for the same reason I am, we feel it cheapens a death. That death may be heroic or through folly, but it should still mean something, and the ease with which the game treats resurrection tarnishes that.

Ending the session I had some thinking to do. I touched base with the players. The longtime surviving player felt her character would not want to continue without her companions. A valid choice and one true to the characters. This was my problem. We had crafted such a close and personal story that without the characters it was simply impossible to roll new ones and continue. We found the natural end to our first campaign, our first story, though we were not looking for it.

Now however we take steps into our second campaign, and the toll and experiences of the first can be seen in the character creation of the players. I can’t say too much as it is very early days, but I am very much looking forward to a new adventure and the story we all will tell together.

This experience has taught me that characters do not make the obvious choices. We are all so much more fragile and imperfect than we like to think, and that ‘sub optimal’ choices create the best tales. I find myself having to actively suspend my disbelief in some cases now as I read. Pieces fall together too well in most cases and there is non of the organic chaos present we find in life. That is something I want to try to replicate in my writing, but outside of this medium, I think that will be difficult indeed.

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BLOG: Here We Go Again.

There’s something to be said for the rolling heroic epics. Stories that span hundreds of pages and several volumes in the course of saving the world. The hero completes their journey, the wrongs are righted and the world is brought back from the brink of destruction. Cinematic storytelling where the stakes are the highest they have ever been. A lot of authors write this style of epic fantasy well, but how do you top saving the world?

You can always save the world again, and in many sequels the hero does, but it always felt less to me. Not necessarily derivative, but even though we were back to saving the world, it had already been done, Feist and Eddings come to mind. I enjoyed the authors work immensely but re-reading them lately got me thinking; are these the kind of stories I want to tell?

How about instead of saving the world, we just try to make it through the day.

As I get older this becomes more important to me, more pertinent to the way the world turns. The world will be fine, it’s us that are buggered, and what are we but a collection of individuals. The saying goes that everyone is the main character in their own story. More focused, character driven stories are what I find most interesting. The world does not need to be saved (Yes it does, its falling apart) the character just needs to make it through the day.

This is far more relate-able to me, and to many people I think. Sure saving the world is fun, but who can identify with that struggle. Even in the tales where the heroes save the world, the small moments between characters highlight the humanity so well. It’s that feeling, those moments I want to capture in my own writing.

 

 

BLOG: Of Dice And Pens; Collaborative Narrative.

Continuing my look at the effects of running a Dungeons and Dragons campaign on my own writing output, today I would like to dig into what is probably my favourite aspect of tabletop RPGs, the collaborative narrative.

Ordinarily as a writer you plot out the story beats and create the character arcs along with character growth throughout the narrative. In D&D you don’t get to create the characters, you have no control over their personality, history or what their goals are in life. That is the responsibility of your players.

The story is what matters most to me when I run a game, and so I find myself in this unique situation where we at the table rely on improv to drive that story forward. The choices made are not always what I would have done. At first, when I first became a DM, that was a problem for me and it almost led me to railroad my players onto a set narrative. There is no fun in being a player who is just a glorified pawn in someone else’s story. The story belongs to everyone at the table, we all contribute.

As the DM I can put down all the story hooks and fleshed out characters I want to, but they are completely open to my players interpretations, or their suspicions. I never like to railroad the people at the table, giving them freedom to add to the story we are all creating with a ‘Yes, and’ mentality that has led to twists and turns I had never expected. As a writer who usually knows every plot beat beforehand, it’s incredibly refreshing.

Sometimes a players choice will cause me to pull details out of thin air as I run the game by the seat of my pants. Your plans as DM usually don’t survive first contact with the players. This sort of improvisation is an incredibly useful creative exercise. It forces you to pick something and stick with it, the choice becomes set in stone and you have to make it work. Given the ability to edit and rewrite your own work, these rapid and permanent choices have taught me that it is ok to go with your instincts and have actually sharpened my creative process.

Other times a players offhand comment has completely changed how I saw an aspect of the story, or what I had planned for the story. One such comment about how a location on the map looked led to a sundered city surrounded by an underground forest. A memorable adventure, and the fallout of that simple comment and the narrative decisions it led to are still being felt in the campaign, and will for a time going forward.

Having to work within the confines of a player’s character choices, their history, flaws and goals can be incredibly challenging. It’s easier for some players than others. Some players are happy to be led, they are new or unsure about the character, so they allow you to draw them in, and over time they begin grow the character on their own. Others have a very defined idea of the character and all its aspects. This is a little more restrictive and can continue to be so should you work in a vacuum, but adding in the other character and story elements gives a DM many opportunities to create a personalised narrative that the player should enjoy and feels is right for their character.

This style of storytelling, fed by the narrative choices of others has led to some of the most exciting, funny and poignant moments in my personal writing experience.

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BLOG: Of Dice And Pens.

I mentioned in a previous blog post that I was keen on looking into the effects a creative outlet such as a tabletop RPG, or in my particular case Dungeons and Dragons, has on some bodies creative output.

Now obviously this doesn’t apply to everyone and is a textbook example of anecdotal evidence but I think it will curious to explore it.

Previously my daily word count target hovered at around 1000 words. I find it easy to put that amount of words down, I’m not short on ideas (though keeping to one project is a different matter). That target became, in terms of writing content for projects, almost non-existent when I began running a long-term game of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D).

As the Dungeon Master (DM), or Game Master (GM) as some prefer, it is my job to present the world and the narrative hooks for the players. This is the first pitfall for myself. A DM can, if they choose, run an adventure or campaign in a premade setting. D&Ds 5th Edition (5e) uses the Forgotten Realms as a standard setting, home to a host of well-known literary characters and adventures.

But where is the fun in that? I’m the kind of person who simply has to play around with the established archetypes of fantasy. Tolkien is all well and good ( and I would point you towards Adventures in Middle Earth for a great 5e Tolkien setting) but it’s been done so many times before.

I don’t want to play in a pre-established world with its own lore and standards, I want to create my own. To that end I set about creating a homebrew (where a person creates their own setting) world for my players. That was possibly the first sign of my trouble, but I didn’t see it.

I set about laying down some bare bones for the world in preparation for the first session, I created a land, a town and the name of a few others. I put down some story hooks for quests and created a few Non Player Characters (NPCs) for the players to interact with.

I only set about this small amount as I was unsure if the players would want to continue, they were all first time players after all. Even this surface world-building cut into my daily word counts.

The first session went well, the players enjoyed themselves, I enjoyed myself and they wanted more. Now I am furiously laying tracks before the runaway train and because I enjoyed it, because it was new and exciting, I didn’t mind that game prep and world-building ate into my writing time.

Of course it’s all writing, it’s all creating. That’s something else I want to explore too.

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BLOG: Falling off the wagon.

It’s early and I’m trundling along on a bus towards St Helens of all places. It’s nothing personal against St Helens you understand, I’m just from Wigan.

I have fallen out of the habit of writing daily. Like many say, it’s a muscle that needs excercise and right now I’m drifting towards atrophy.

I let go of the time everyday where I would write, time that I used to guard jealously, and I have become doughy.

So it’s time to get back into literary shape. The programme calls for reading and writing daily, word count targets and a return to weekly blogs.

One of the things I am keen to explore is the impact of running a tabletop RPG (in this case Dungeons and Dragons) on my writing output.

I won’t pretend it doesn’t scratch the world-building itch I suffer from, and with its instant gratification of player interaction, it’s a hard allure to resist.

Beyond the creative time sink that running a game can become, I also want to explore the unique creative and narrative aspects a role-playing game can offer a writer, depending of course on the style of game you run.

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A Light In The Gloom: Part 1.

Bee swam down further into the gloom. The dark water was no problem though, her eyes easily adjusting. She had seen the fading light glint off something in the muck below. She wound her slight form down, her powerful tail propelling her though the water with a grace unmatched. She shooed away a greedy tench and ran her webbed fingers through the silt. Bee was small for one of the Folk but despite that she had been afforded the honour of being invited to the next Great Assembly. Her mother was very proud, imagine if a member of the Roach Tribe were the next Maid, such a thing was unheard of. Her brothers had teased her something awful but she could tell they were proud of her, brothers just had a funny way of showing it. Her fingers found something cold, a shiny ring pull. Dropping it into the pouch at her side she swam back up, the depths held larger fish than a fat tench, a full grown pike would think nothing of taking a bite out of her. Before she would break the surface she stopped to examine the content of her pouch. Three ring pulls, a few pieces of water turned glass of green and brown and a handful of bottle tops. Bee had decided to make a necklace for the Maid, to thank her for the invitation, even if she was not the next Maid it was still a great honour to be invited. Pressing on through the high growing reeds she startled a small school of bleak, the little silver fish scattered in every direction.

“Sorry,” she called as she continued towards home. Home for one of the Folk was the tribe they belonged to, there were many tribes that Bee knew of, some were always moving along the canals and rivers others stayed in one area. The Folk of the Open Waters held no tribes, or so Bee had heard from her mother, she had never seen one herself. Bee was part of the Roach Tribe, a small tribe but one of the oldest. For the most part they were farmers, though a few become errant, travelling folk without a tribe to come back too. An errant would help any tribe they came across, but would never be able to call it their own. Errant lived a life of travel and adventure. Her brothers Butterbur and Bogbean were training to become errant, learning all they could before they would leave. Her mother spoke very little of it, but would always sigh heavily whenever either of them brought it up and they would quickly fall silent. Bee thought such a life to be wonderful.

Winding her way through the water she was careful not to startle anymore schools and to avoid the human lines that dangled from the banks. She had once sat with her brothers watching a human pull fish after fish from the water only to return them shortly after. The fish were most confused by this turn of events, what an earth could the humans be doing if they were not eating the fish. The complexities and mysteries of humans were lost on her, they were strange folk better left alone, she had seen the dangers of getting tangled in the lines they cast. Still, it was fun to cut the lines and swim away with the little coloured sticks tied to them, they made for pretty headdresses. Bee was looking for more shiny items when the two large forms of her brothers swam out of the darkness. Butterbur was longer but Bogbean was heavier, both of them had fathers dark stripes and pointy spines.

“There you are,” Bogbean called, he waved her over.

“We have go, theres trouble,” said Butterbur grabbing her wrist. Bee pulled free and swam back, her brothers had played tricks like this on her before. They had once bound her in weeds and left her tied to the underside of a barge, a kind of human vessel. Mother had not been pleased.

“Bee, were not playing,” said Bogbean, “there’s trouble with Heron Tribe.” The Heron Tribe were the Roach Tribes closest neighbours, though they didn’t farm Starwort like the Roach Tribe. The Heron Tribe were almost all warriors. The warrior tribes of the Folk would patrol the waterways and deal with any threats that may put the Folk in danger. Most warrior tribes were under the control of the Maid herself, but Heron Tribe remained independent, independent and troublesome. They would bully smaller tribes into sharing food and resources or let the larger predators of the waterways into their territory. The Roach Tribe had been sharing the Starwort with Heron Tribe for a long time, and it was much more work for them. Trouble with the Heron Tribe wasn’t uncommon, but for her brothers to come fetch her like this, it must be serious. Bee nodded and fell in line with her brothers who led her through the tangles of weeds and larger human debris and back to the farm. Father was waiting at the hollowed out bank they called home, wringing his tail in worry. He beamed at them as they approached and quickly hustled all three inside. Mother was nowhere to be seen. Their hollow was simple, like most Folk dwellings, it was round and tall, with only four rooms. The centre room was were father prepared meals and it had a large stone table big enough for the whole family to gather round. The walls were lined with glitterbells, a small green plant that gave off a soft glow that lit the inside of the hollow.

“Where’s Ma, Bogbean said the Herons are up to no good again?” She asked her father. Her father bustled about the hollow setting food for each of them and fussing as only he could.

“I’m sure it’s all just a misunderstanding,” He assured her, “your mother has gone to see what’s going on.” That was all he would say on the matter. Bee knew better than to press her father, the women of the Folk ruled each family, if her mother had decided to see what was going on then that was an end to the matter. Butterbur and Bogbean gulped their food down quickly and left the hollow with only a quick goodbye. It wasn’t fair that they got to go off on their own. She edged close to the door whilst her fathers back was turned preparing more food. “No you don’t Bee,” came her fathers voice. Bee turned back to see her father still facing away from her.

“But it’s not fair, they get to go off and do what they like,” She protested swishing her tail in anger.

“Don’t you dare flair your tail at me young lady,” her father warned without turning, “Your brothers are big enough and ugly enough to take care of themselves, you are not.”

“But I am, I was invited to the assembly,” she pointed out. Her father turned and smiled at her. Bee was one of only five youngsters invited to The Assembly, an event which would determine a new Maid, the Guiding Chief of the Folk. Roach Tribe had never had a member become a Maid, it was a very high honour to even be invited.

“Now don’t you go getting too big for your fins. You were invited, and we are all so very proud of you, the whole Tribe,” he placed a hand on either side of Bees’ face and scrunched it up, “but if there is trouble out there I don’t want you to be any part of it.” That was the end of the discussion. Bee pouted and settled down to sulk in the corner. Emptying the items from her pouch she began to order them along a thin length of line. She was sure the Maid would have much finer pieces, but she did not have one from Roach Tribe.

Bee woke with the necklace still in her hands, she must have fallen asleep still making it. The glitterbells were bright and water outside the hollow was so dark that even one of the Folk would have trouble seeing through it. Her father and mother were in the middle of the hollow talking in harsh whispers. She decided to stay quiet, pretending to be asleep, grown ups had a habit of not talking about the important things in front of children. Sleep still fogged her mind but Bee could make out her mother’s worried tone, something about a beast in the water meadow and not enough food to go around. Her father was wringing his tail again.

“But to attack us!” he said in a louder voice. Her mother shushed her father and looked in her direction, it was a long moment before she was satisfied Bee was asleep.

“They drove the others out of the last meadow, set up guards to stop us getting back in,” she said, “When I got there, well, you know how Deadnettle can be. We were lucky to get away with a few bruises.” So the Heron Tribe had run them off their own farms and attacked them. Everyone knew they were bunch of bullies but they had never attacked another tribe before.

“What about the other meadow, did you find out what was in there?” her father asked. Mother shook her head.

“No, but if the Herons can’t take care of it then it has to be something big, not just a swarm of pike or a wayward kelpie.” Bee watched her through half closed eyes as she leaned in closer to her father, she had to hold her breath to hear her. “With only one meadow there wont be enough food for both tribes. Me and few others are going back tomorrow, and either they’re leaving, or we are.” She turned towards her and Bee closed her eyes, her mother lifted her effortlessly into her arms. “I want you to take Bee to the Assembly tomorrow as planned. If things go bad, I want you and her as far away from here as possible. It wouldn’t hurt to let the Maid know what Heron Tribe are up to either.”

Her mother laid her down gently in her bed of reeds and left her appearing to be sound asleep. There was something in one of the meadows, something that scared even the Heron Tribe. Bee would find out what this creature was, a Maid after all was trusted to resolve the issues of her people. When her father would come to wake her he would find Bee’s bed empty and his daughter nowhere to be seen.

 

 

BLOG: THM article.

A short while ago I got the opportunity to try my hand at writing an article for a magazine. My friend John Kelly started his own publication called ToyHero Magazine (https://toyh3ro.wixsite.com/toyheromag) The article in question swang wildly away from any kind of review or test and instead fell to how my toys as a child inspired my imagination. John has been kind enough to let me post that article here.

It’s a tense moment on the bridge of the Enterprise, Captain Picard gives the order for Data to scan the surface of the planet. The Captain orders the Borg and Worf to prepare to beam down (that’s right, I had a friendly borg crew member first, in your face Voyager!) Data’s console beeps, it appears they are orbiting a planet populated by a giant cat-like race of people, they call themselves the Thundercats.

If you can’t tell I grew up in the late 80’s and early 90’s fed on a diet of Saturday morning cartoons and reruns of popular 80’s shows like Thundercats, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers to name a few. Before cartoons had their own dedicated channels we had to make do with early Saturdays and a small slot after school. I can vividly remember sitting in my Nans’ living room watching Turtles on the DJ Kat Show or Spider-Man and X-men on Live and Kicking. Star Trek was there too, nurturing an early love of sci-fi and exploration along with short lived shows like Space Precinct. The great thing about these shows, and most of the cartoons that provide a flashback into my childhood, was that they came with a host of figures and toys.

I remember getting my first Power Ranger figure (Jason the red ranger) and I was thrilled with just how articulated with how it was. Ball and socket joints on action figures were not very common, and how could you hope to replicate the high-flying martial arts action of the Power Rangers with a figure whose arms merely went up and down. It was a revelation for me. My cousin chewed his head shortly after I got him, he went through life with teeth marks and a slightly squashed head. I love my cousin but to this day I’m still a little bitter about that. There were many times I gave myself a sore throat by imitating voices such as Mumm-Ra or making the noise a Transformer does when it transforms (it took me a lot longer than it does on the show.)

Besides the happy nerdiness of pouring over long forgotten toys I also could not pass up the opportunity to try my hand at a different style of writing. I saw what John was doing with ToyHero Magazine (THM) and it got me thinking about how truly appreciative I am of the toys I loved as a child. All the imaginative scenarios they let me play out, such as the bridge crew of the Enterprise stumbling across Thundera or the Skeleton Warriors vs The Ghostbusters. It seemed such an interesting concept to me, after all we have magazines for every other walk of life, clothes, movies and video games spring to mind. Why not one to appreciate the things, that for many of us, helped build our creativity.

I work in toy retail, so it is encouraging to see more of this kind of publication. Geek culture and the toys it spawns has never been larger, or more accepted. Throughout the northwest we now have toy fairs and cons on a regular basis, places for toy enthusiasts, artists and cosplayers to get together and bond over our mutual love of the fandoms out there. There are lines for children to enjoy as well as more delicate (and pricier) items that are designed for the collectors out there.

 There was a rich culture of cartoons and shows that spawned line after line of action figures. Street sharks, Ghostbusters, James Bond Junior, Batman (both the films and the amazing animated series), Conan, Pirates of Dark Water, the list goes on. Most of these toys expanded well beyond the range of the shows, with side characters and a whole host of accessories that only came in toy form. Batman the Animated Series Toys by Kenner produced no less than eight different batman figures, each with a unique colour scheme and gadget I don’t recall ever seeing in the series. My uncle gave me a box of original star wars figures, dozens of them (which I sadly treated roughly as a child) and I was amazed that there were figures for even the smallest of character roles (looking at you Gonk Droid)

Figures and play-sets were a way for me to expand my imagination as a child, we lived on a busy road so many of my days were spent indoors. The bridge crew of the enterprise would encounter a strange planet filled with giant cat-like people, or a robot that turned into a car would be battling with bike riding mice from mars. I was free to add or remove any character I wanted into my own little narratives. If I wanted Batman to show up in Spider-man, he would,  and for good measure the Turtles and He-Man would make an appearance too. I would create serial stories with these toys, often picking up where I last left off the next time I played with them. Looking back on it, this is probably the first instance of me creating my own stories, something that is now my passion.

I just had to take the time and opportunity to express my appreciation and love for the toys of my childhood and the creativity that they inspired and a quick apology to all of the army men I buried in the garden, your sacrifice was not in vain boys.