Flight Papers

feminism and creativity, art, madness, and play

Archive for the ‘narratives’ Category

Premise is easy, story is difficult.

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

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I was browsing the Exalted wiki*, and I came across this little piece,

It is generally going to be hard to understand anything I write if you assume that I balance things with CAN and CAN’T. I balance things with EASY and DIFFICULT.—Rebecca Borgstrom

She’s talking about Sidereal and Solar Charms, and how certain abstract restrictions on Sidereals are actually represented, subtly, in the Charm definitions in a way that makes some people go, “omgbroken.” (If you don’t understand any of that, don’t worry about it, it’s not really necessary to understand the point).

She’s taking an in-world perspective. Some things are hard for certain characters, some things are easy for certain characters. From this perspective, balance is making sure there are enough things that are easy for each character that no player feels like theirs is useless.

But let’s switch stances for a second and look at it from the outside: now, we’re not looking at characters, we’re looking at people playing a game. And standing in this frame, those things which are “difficult” are things that produce conflict. They produce spotlight time. Those things which are “easy” aren’t worthless—they dictate premise. If it’s explicitly easy for a character to tear the heads off a ten-thousand soldier army, well, you’ll probably develop stories which take that fact for granted and build from there. If it isn’t, you’ll develop stories which take something else for granted, and build from it. From this stance, balance is about making sure that everyone’s character has enough meat that they feel engaged with the stories.

But you want characters to be good at the things they’re doing, right? Well, ah… no.

This is the superpower dilemma—if a character is good at a thing, the story will not be about that. House isn’t about medical diagnostics, and Buffy isn’t about killing vampires. Where this gets tricky is that players (and, let’s be fair, some writers) don’t always realize this. So they make characters who are good at the thing they want the story to be about, rather than the thing that will lead to their characters having trouble with the thing that the story is meant to be about, neatly short-circuiting the story.

It’s possible to do work to avoid this, mind. Shock: averts this by starting with the concept you want to address (Issues), and works backwards to world effects (Shocks), and then character traits (Praxis Scales and Features). This guarantees that there exists a vector between the protagonists’ qualities and kinds of issues you actually want to form the story. (Dogs does this a bit differently, with town creation and the hierarchy of sins. This definitely gives the GM [and Vincent Baker] a lot more power to define what issues get addressed.)

There’s a bit more subtlety here, too. I’m not exactly advocating that characters should be bad at the things they do—rather, the things characters do should have complications for them. If those complications stem from, “you’re an idiot,” then you have a particular brand of comedy. If they stem from the generally malicious nature of the universe, you have Hitchhiker’s Guide. If they stem from the confluence of particular institutional forces, you have a story about that (you can say that Serenity’s crew is just getting screwed over by the universe, but that ignores the bit where every obstacle they face is an artifact of the Alliance-imposed class system. The film makes this very explicit, directly addressing the Alliance as an adversary.)

* I wanted to see the second ed Sidereal charms, okay? DON’T JUDGE ME.

I am beginning to believe…

Wednesday, September 5th, 2007

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…amongst other things, that story structure is not so much a tool as it is a blanket. It isn’t so much that we need help in discovering the story. Rather, we need to be drawn out of ourselves, so that we may express the stories we already know.

And at that point, to continue the analogy, we will find it warm, fuzzy, comforting, and possibly filled with poisonous spiders.

I just got back from California and started a new job, so I’m a bit scattered right now. Still, there’s some good stuff happening with Touch—Asa made a particularly insightful suggestion the other day, which I think to be even cooler than I understand at the moment. I’m settling into an update schedule again, so more soon.

Things like that only happen where things like that don’t happen.

Tuesday, August 14th, 2007

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There is a camaraderie in shared alienation. Nobody gives a shit about any of us, so we’re all in it together. We have weapons, we have violence in our hands, there are more of us than there are of them, but what can we do?

Stop. Change the circumstances.

Now, some of them are collaborators. They are loved and wanted, and their futures are shining brightly ahead of them, like those blue xenon headlights on some godforsaken SUV. We’re just problems. Speed bumps. So maybe a few of us will make the ride as uncomfortable as possible.


This is what I know: The characters are students at a suburban high school. The game session concludes in an act of violence.

This isn’t Touch, though it’s related (I don’t think it’s Vesperteen, either, but I don’t fully understand Vesp, and the page for it seems to be down at the moment, and Jonathan and I need to talk about it more, at any rate). Where as Touch hits its high notes being Buffy or Lost and Delirious, this game is Elephant through and through.

I’m not sure how I feel about playing that, but I’m damn sure I want to write it.

I have limits.

Wednesday, August 8th, 2007

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I don’t know what they are—and even in saying that, I get a sense that I do, actually, know what they are. There are some things that will make me just leave. Stand up from the table and walk away.

The table in question is not necessarily a gaming table. Empirically, it isn’t; I have walked away from conversations, but never any games.

My question to you is: what will make you leave? What sort of game would push the boundaries that you don’t want pushed?

This is relevant with regards to a game I’m working on called Touch. It’s set in high school, and it is explicitly sexual—although it does not necessarily involve explicit sex, if that makes sense. It’s Sugar Rush. It’s Cruel Intentions. And whenever I’ve talked about it with people, I’ve come away with the sense that only people really, really on the same page, who really trust each other, could possibly play it.

Maybe that’s true. I’m not sure yet, but I’d like to know.

Think of it this way

Thursday, June 21st, 2007

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Behind every concept lies a web of stories.

They may be very simple. Without her, my life is less—love. This is mommy; this is daddy. Mommy does mommy things, daddy does daddy things—gender. I wish we had never met—hatred. They are simple, but they are many, and without these narratives, concepts and ideas fail to exist. That’s because even self-evident concepts are not pre-social. They do not exist in the ether, waiting for us to analyze away our worldly knowledge so that we may come to attain perfect knowledge of them. They are created things, which exist in their telling. And for ideas to survive as more than flickering thoughts, they need a narrative foundation to latch onto.

This is how the world came to be, in a moment of desire. This is why good should triumph over evil. This is why we should believe in either.

These things are the foundation of our world.

That’s why I’m interested in stories. They hook into us in a very deep level—stories are not how we learn, they are how we know.

Games are what happen when you collect enough stories that they start to define rules. Not well, necessarily, but well enough. The tales of logic and reason give us analytic philosophy; the tales of love and hate and gender tell us how to live. It may seem strange or amoral to refer to these pursuits as games, but (rest assured), it isn’t. They are activities which exist within their own space, and have their own rules—play doesn’t need to imply inauthenticity, and indeed, might well imply the opposite.

When we explicitly play a game—be it BDSM roleplay, or the other kind—we are building barriers. But those barriers give us power. They let us deal with foreign concepts, play with stories that we would not otherwise entertain. We can reject foundational narratives with comfort, knowing that we are only doing so in the course of play. And because they are communal, we let other people into a part of our mental space normally off-limits, and we invite ourselves into theirs. In the course of play, we construct new stories. They aren’t immediately foundational, but they may well become so.

And that’s why I’m interested in play.