Writing effective setting in adventures (part three)

29 11 2009

As I conclude this series on setting, I’ll next cover the  often-misunderstood tactic of the use of nature in setting.

Seasons

The time of year may be incidental to your adventure, but even so, you may be able to use it to dramatic effect.  First you should consider the role of the seasons. Do they, in some way, link to the story? Is there a birth or death for example? Is a character in the autumn of they years?

Secondly, you can use atypical weather to denote something is either very good – or very wrong.

A sunny day in the middle of winter spells optimism.

A downpour in the height of summer casts an inevitable gloom.

The weather can be the portent of something to happen (or reflect what is happening).

You don’t need to handle the link too heavy-handed. The best links are natural and appear almost incidental.

The players will make the link subconsciously and that is in your favour.

Getting it right

Unless you know specific aspects of weather intimately, don’t guess at them. Do your research.

Unless you’ve experienced a hurricane or a blizzard, you don’t really know what it’s like.

It’s a bit like people who tell you they’ve got the flu.

They have a cold.

People who have ever truly had the flu know the difference. And it annoys them when people describe their sniffle as the flu.

Similarly, poorly described settings that involve snow will frustrate people who live in areas that get a lot of snowfall.

As will anyone who reads an attempt to get the weather right by guesswork.

Weather as an event

If the first two reasons for using nature and the weather as to either provide a backdrop or to act an a metaphor, the third option is arguably more important.

Sometimes the weather is either a major aspect of the adventure – the impending arrival of a tornado or the effects of an earthquake – or it is a factor in the story.

The blizzard in Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ is a prime example here as it keeps the characters isolated.

How do you use mood in setting?

From time to time the setting doesn’t add anything to the story in itself. You may think that adding any words to the setting gets in the way.

At this point, it is worth considering if the story has enough ‘mood’ to carry the tale, or if the appropriate setting can add to the mood.

It could be as simple as the darkness of night, the sound of distant thunder or the desolation of the wilderness.

An often-overlooked aspect of setting is the role that culture plays

You can’t have one…

Just like a horse and carriage, you can’t have setting without a nod to culture.

The culture doesn’t change the setting specifically – but it does dictate how the characters see and interact with the setting.

And it affects the way the players view the NPCs.

A boardroom full of men and women can be the setting.

As you read that sentence, you may interpret nothing strange.

If the story was set in the 1920s, the culture of the era dictates that either the women were visitors, or in subservient roles, or this was not a typical boardroom.

The setting hasn’t changed, but our interpretation of it has because of the prevailing culture.

Moreover, we will change our view of the characters in the room as a result.

What’s the best way to avoid clichés?

The boring standards

‘It was a dark and gloomy night.’

I’m sure it was, but a players deserve better than this.

It’s a phrase that sounds so bored it makes the player think the GM can’t be bothered. And if the GM can’t be bothered, why should the players?

The confused metaphor

‘It was a virgin field, pregnant with possibilities.’

My English teacher taught me that example, almost thirty years ago.

This isn’t just confused; it’s a mixed metaphor. Be aware that your description has to make sense.

‘The stench of body odour overwhelms you. It reminds you of…’

Unless it’s really important, does it matter what it reminds the players of? They got the idea already – body odour.

It’s unpleasant. It stinks.

The particular fragrance of body odour isn’t particularly necessary. Unless of course it is necessary. Otherwise, credit the players with some imagination.

Having said that, you could introduce the smell before we know it is body odour. That would be valid.

The overly obscure metaphor

Some GMs are aware of the boring options and are clever enough not to confuse the player, but they want to be inventive.

‘He stood on the deck of the ship like a goalkeeper waiting for a free-kick to be taken.’

Ten out of ten for originality, but zero out of ten for comprehension. What on earth does it mean?

Trying too hard to make the metaphor original also makes it unintelligible.  And in a fantasy setting, who’s heard of football?

Point of view and characters

What do the characters know?

The GM is in the head of the characters, and so they must see the setting through the same eyes.

Would the PC urban doctor know every type of tree in the woods? Would he know an antique clock from a reproduction?

Be aware of how you introduce the setting and which descriptions you use to allow the player to see the scenery.

You shouldn’t short-change the PCs to keep the description honest, but you have to be descriptive too.  If they don’t know the names of the trees, describe their colours, their shapes, their leaves etc.

By the same token, the PC doctor wouldn’t pay much attention to the trappings of an operating theatre.

Although a novice PC might wonder at the machinery or instruments, the doctor’s interest would be in the patient or the type of operation about to be performed.

What do your characters feel?

We often perceive setting based upon our own preconceptions and experiences. One man’s idyllic deserted beach is another man’s desolate wasteland.

As noted previously, the setting hasn’t changed – but the description has.

It’s also worth noting that our emotional state will affect how we view our surroundings.

Being nothing more complicated than happy will make us more positively disposed to our setting. It also affects what we notice.

The dreaded infodump – the pre-game literature

Often GMs will provide players with a small library prior to the game starting.  They call it ‘essential background reading.’

Worse still, they complain when the player’s don’t read it.  If you are one of those GMs, consider this:

If you are GMing an adventure for first level characters, how much would they really know of the world beyond the village they live in?  That comes as they progress.  They learn about the politics of the court, the common religions and the geography of the world as they interact with new people.

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Writing effective setting in adventures (part two)

27 11 2009

What’s the best way to avoid too much setting?

The bare minimum

Stephen King is a writer that likes the idea of giving the reader the bare minimum in terms of description.

He feels that too much and you force the reader to see your characters and settings in your way.

He wants the reader to own the description – thus making the story specific to them.

The key here is, ‘the bare minimum.’  Stephen King is a master at knowing what is too much and what is too little. If you are not as blessed as Mr. King, what do you do?

Trial and error

Until you become an expert, you will have to follow the trusted steps of trial and error.

The rule mentioned before of one line per new scene is a good starting point.

The more important a place is, the more you describe – but remember, you don’t have to reveal it all at once. Revisits can be used to flesh out more and more.

More than a few lines to describe the setting and you’d better have a good reason for it.

Know your players. Different players will have different tastes – if they love long descriptions, give it to them.

Using the right words

If you have a habit of overstating the scenery, work on the words you use. The later reference to senses is particularly useful here.

Use language that doesn’t just describe in a flat way. Use alliteration and very specific descriptors to sharpen your description.

A word like ‘gloomy’ suggests both the state of the weather and of the mood. The better your vocabulary, the better your settings will work.

How do you ensure you engage your player’s senses?

The basic five

The five senses are not anything mystical. They are on the other hand, extremely powerful when it comes to creating a setting.

Little else sparks the imagination like an appropriately used sense.

There is, as ever, a balancing act.  If the sense used is too obscure, you won’t engage the players – and they’ll spend so much time trying to work out what you meant that they’d miss the next few words.

On the other hand, making it too hackneyed doesn’t really add any value. Try to avoid the tried and tested if you can. Be original without being alien.

The final point is to ensure you use all of the senses.

GMs will typically spend 99% of the time talking about what characters can see and only use the other 1% when the input is exceptional – a loud noise or a pungent smell.

In real life the mix of sensory perception is never this heavily weighted in favour of sight. Why should your adventure be any different?

The emotions

Emotions aren’t senses of course, but they are a powerful link to getting a player to understand the setting very quickly. If you can combine senses and emotion you will really hook the player quickly – and that’s why I have linked them here.

Describing an inanimate object by using an emotion on the face of it seems odd, but it can convey in a couple of words what could take a five minutes to explain.

If your characters come to a ‘lonely house’ or enter a ‘confused room’ then you have started to evoke multiple images in the players’ mind – and only a small amount more description will enable the players to fully understand what you mean.

Understanding the levels of setting

Metaphors etc.

The subtlest way to describe is to say how the setting resembles something the players know well (or the other way around).  Each serves it’s own purpose but writers regularly confuse their uses.

a. Metaphors

This is an implication. There is no statement that there is a link; we simply use the resemblance.

‘She walked catlike across the roof of the villa.’

Nobody expects the character to have fur and a tail. If ‘she’ were a cat, we would say she simply walked – cats, by definition, walk catlike.

This one word suggests she walks assuredly, softly, secretively and no doubt evokes the image of a cat burglar. The players will probably already suspect that she is up to no good.

b. Similes

Here we add the prefix ‘like’ or ‘as’ and therefore by definition create more of a signpost to the link.

‘She walked across the villa’s roof like a cat.’

The same result but a different and less subtle route.

c. Analogies

This is the least subtle option as we tell the player that something was like something else and include a comparison.

‘Her journey across the roof of the villa was like a cat stalking its next meal as she made every effort to make no sound and reacted instinctively to every small movement around her.’

d. Allusions

Here you make reference to someone or something famous.

‘Felicity the burglar. The wonderful, wonderful burglar.’

I chose this on purpose – and if you didn’t understand it, I’ve proved my point.

If you’ve never seen or heard of Felix the Cat, the allusion is wasted. Worse still, the players would wonder what on earth the words mean. If they do get it, they feel pleased with themselves.

(If you still don’t get it, ask someone older than you to sing the ‘Felix the Cat’ song (or YouTube it).  Then you’ll get it).

Allusions are dangerous ground.

e. Personification

This is a variation, where an inanimate object (or sometimes flora or fauna) is given a human trait.

‘The fog hugged her body as she sat on the villa’s roof.’

Next time out I’ll talk about using nature in setting.





Writing effective setting in adventures (part one)

26 11 2009

One thing that most writers (adventure or otherwise) find challenging about setting is understanding how it gives the story context

Overlooking the setting

Too many GMs spend a lot of time on plot and ensure they have great characters and expect to produce a fantastic adventure.  Setting is the most often overlooked aspect of adventure writing that is relatively easily teachable.

Certain parts of writing are difficult to impart – style and pace are the two that immediately spring to mind – but like plotting or creating believable characters, crafting great settings is something that can be learned.

Having said all of that, good setting does not mean a good adventure but it’s fair to say that bad setting can equal a bad adventure.

Stories in a vacuum

The adventure doesn’t just need things to happen – it needs somewhere for them to happen. Setting doesn’t just give the players a place to see things unfold, great setting adds to the experience.

It creates the mood and can draw the player into the story in a way that no other facet can.

Setting isn’t world building, but it’s a small step towards creating a believable world in which your characters and plot live.

Setting is not, however, just the broad brush-strokes of the world – it’s not just the background.

The link to great characters

We are all influenced by where we grew up, where we went to school, where we live.

The creation of accurate settings reflects who your characters are, where they came from and sometimes even where they are going.

Your characters may be a reflection of their environment. Or the setting may give the players an insight as to why their characters are developing the way they are.

Do your characters conform to their setting, or are they rebelling?

What are the aspects of setting?

Do you need to include scenery?

Scenery is a challenge for the fledgling adventure writer. Too much scenery and the players will feel like they’ve stumbled into a book of photographs.

Very pretty but it doesn’t go anywhere.

Yet too little and there is no context for the story.

Scenery has its place. If the scene opens with a man bursting into the room with a gun, the players don’t want ten minutes of the GM describing how beautiful the room is – they want to know what’s going to happen.

As a GM, you have to know the appropriate point to describe the scene.

You either have to delay the entrance with the pistol, or find another way of working it in.

Each scene deserves at least a few words of setting – even if it’s a familiar place. You can always reveal details bit by bit if it’s a setting frequented often.  Players probably won’t take in all of the details in one sitting anyway.

Because that’s exactly how it works in real life. You typically notice the big things first and then upon revisiting, you start to notice more and more of the details.

Eventually you would notice if something was moved or missing.

A good rule (to be stretched and bent as you see fit) is to give the description as early in the scene as possible, without it getting in the way of the story or encounter.

The second suggestion is to invest more time on scenery the first time you visit – and the more important the setting is throughout the adventure.

Place as a character

Sometimes the scenery or setting plays as big a part in the adventure as any character. In a whodunit, the murder scene is often integral to the plot.

On these occasions, as much effort should be lavished on the creation of the setting as that important NPC.

And like characterisation, you may not use all of the detail – but you had better be prepared. Hogwarts in the Harry Potter novels is a prime example.  So if you have a dungeon, what was it before it was a dungeon.  People just don’t build them.  They are typically functional building that fall into disrepair and then they become dungeons over many, many years.  The dungeon should have a flavour that reflects its original (or most recent) use. 

If you only reveal the salient points in a mystery story, you have telegraphed the plot to the player. Similarly, if you over elaborate, the player will lose interest.

Sometimes the place has an importance because of its effect on the characters – and on these occasions, it merits a greater description.

It’s a classic show and tell scenario.

You can tell the player about the character or you can show the interaction with the setting – which is always far more effective.

Your own backyard

There is a real tendency for adventure writers to fall into two opposite traps when describing a place that is familiar to them – either from real life or a fantasy setting they’ve used over and over again.

The first option is to explain every detail. Often the GM is proud of what they know or remember and they want to share this in every minute detail.

The second mistake is to assume that every player knows about New York, the Manhattan skyline or the Statue of Liberty – and so no description is given.  Or for that matter the Jedi academy on Coruscant.

In the first scenario, the player will think they’ve stumbled upon a game about writing a guidebook, not an adventure.

In the second, anyone who hasn’t visited these places (or watched the film) will feel left out.

It’s like a recipe book without a picture of what the end product is supposed to look like – you feel cheated in some way.

Include the detail that sets the scene and is relevant. Add nothing more but don’t scrimp on the ingredients either.

Change of scene

The greater the alteration of scene, the more important the description becomes – and the earlier the GM needs to reflect the change.

As an adventure writer, you know when you change scene where the action is taking place – it’s your story. But do the players?

To use a literary example, too many books transfer the action from a quiet room in the centre of Chicago to the wastes of Alaska and don’t let the player know until the second page of writing. As a reader this is most disconcerting (and the example I use is from a real novel).

If your characters experience a change of setting, you need to describe that change – even if it means holding up the plot for a minute or two.

Players that teleport, travel to another plane, enter a dark cave or simply visit a village with differing customs – they all need to be aware of what’s changed.  It sets them mentally to be prepared for other changes e.g. the NPCs may react differently to them.





Some problems with PbP GMing

25 11 2009

As I enjoy my relatively short time as a Play By Post (PbP) gamer and GM, I have started to notice the significant differences between table-top and remote gaming.

Unlike play-by-email, where it tends to become a one-on-one relationship, PbP is more like table-top in the sense that you have to accomodate many players and their different styles and wishes.

Unlike traditional table-top (unless you count convention one-shot gaming), there is no pre-determined group dynamic.  Players could be from anywhere in the world and have any sort of idea about what sort of game they want to play.

Many PbP sites just have game listings.  Specifically, the GM takes players on a first come-first served basis.  Sometimes they ask for a character rationale before accepting players – but rarely (if ever) have I seen a player rationale.

I’ll start with a real-life example.  I just joined an on-line game as a replacement with no rules for entry.  Once in, I had to provide ‘x’ dice rolls for random character generation.  That’s OK, I don’t mind some of that.

Except I ended up with a totally dysfunctional character – and nowhere to take it in terms of a future career.  I am an old, short, dumpy, very attractive (with a huge scar on her face), very intelligent, female woodcutter.  My weapon is a two-handed axe and I have poor strength and weapon skill.  Every facet of my character has been randomly rolled and the GM decided what skills I should take!  My future careers are pre-ordained and none appeal to me. 

I now wonder why this game has a high drop-out rate?  Should I quit now to save the GM the problem of replacing me later?  If I’m to invest daily time for a couple of years, I want to  have a character I can relate to.  I want to know that I can take this character somewhere and not simply aspire to be a vagabond.

My point here is that, as a GM, it is worth setting out some ground rules before players join a PbP game.  If you are attracting new players, you should explain how you expect character creation to pan out.  How you treat power-gaming or meta-gaming.  What you as a GM enjoy and what limits you’ll set on the game.

How about a questionnaire for potential gamers? 

  • What do you enjoy most about gaming?
  • What do you enjoy least about gaming?
  • What limits do you want the GM to set?
  • Where would you not want the GM to interfere?

You get the idea.  Unlike table-top, where you typically know the players and gain fun from the social side of the game, PbP isn’t like that.  GM and players need to gel.  My first effort at GMing a PbP started well and the posts flew thick and fast.  But then we were in combat.  As soon as I took my foot off the pedal and looked for some role-playing with the NPCs, posts dropped off alarmingly.

As a GM, I now know I need to keep things quick-paced for this group but had I pre-screened better, perhaps I would have got players more attuned to ‘my’ type of game?

As a potential PBPer, use this information in reverse.  Be honest with the GM about what sort of game you like and don’t be afraid to ask questions.  Better to drop out before you start than to leave after a few weeks or months.





Which games to do like?

23 11 2009

As I was writing my appendix to my Mouse Guard review, it occurred to me that our opinions of games are often formed not by the mechanics or the out-of-the-book flavour, but by the GM (or to a lesser extent the players).

Think about that for a few seconds…

Imagine a GM offers to run a new game.  It’s a genre you’re OK with and you roll an OK character and you absolutely hate the experience.  Who do you blame?  Typically the games designer.

Yet even an experienced GM can falter with a new system and spoil what could have been year’s worth of enjoyment in a couple of hours.  Similarly, we are typically tolerant of flawed mechanics if the GM really sweeps us up into the game-world.  A so-so game can last years – as long as that GM continues to control it.

So what’s the point of this blog?  Well, if a few readers make the effort to try a game they previously disliked (by running it with a different GM) then I think it will have been a blog worth the effort.

Aside from my Mouse Guard experience (which still does not have a happy ending), I can relate my D&D 3.5 tale. 

D&D was a system I avoided like the plague because of one role-player in a game I was only observing casually (for more on the +3 dagger, you’ll have to trawl September 2009’s archives). 

When I wanted to game again, 3.5 was the only option available to me.  I played a session and – really didn’t like it.  The GM was fine, but the players and the dynamic were reminiscent of all the strange mechanics that put me off the game in the first place. 

Players saw the game as killing and looting.  Everything was a dungeon crawl – they fought to be the person to kill the kobolds and wanted to be first to loot the bodies.  During my second session, I asked why this style of play?  “Because that’s the only was to get xp,” I was told…. 

As luck would have it, the GM wanted a rest and as someone with previous experience, I was asked to start something.  I asked innocently if they would consider Pathfinder.

And so, a few months into Rise of the Runelords, we have a game that is essentially 3.5 but the players now don’t even bother to loot every corpse.  And if they’re injured, they hang back from the front line. 

They even help each other to outflank opponents!

The same game, a different experience altogether.  I now play in a couple of Pathfinder games and they are nothing like that 3.5 game I re-started by gaming interest in.  Had I taken that one experience, I would have given up on 3.5 and Pathfinder would have been lost to me.  

So, the next time you play a game and it doesn’t do it for you, politely consider using a different GM.  Not necessarily a better GM, just a different one.  You may find you like it after all.





Mouse Guard – An update

20 11 2009

As I’ve said before, I review them how I see them.  My personal feedback for Mouse Guard when I did my review was mixed and, at the time, I wondered if this was a game thing or a GM thing.  

At couple of people contacted me to suggest it was the GM, and I took that at face value.  Perception can never be ‘wrong.’  Someone’s perception may not be the same as the facts, but it is still how they perceive it and their opinion is just as valid.

I was therefore pleased to hear not one but two interviews with Luke Crane recently and it appears – from my perspective – that I was both right and wrong to blame the GM.

The whole concept of comic book role-playing is close to Luke Crane’s heart (I don’t feel I know him well enough to call him Luke and Mr. Crane sounds too formal).  As is the narrative style and his desire to write ‘different’ role-playing games.

From his words and my limited game-play, I think it takes a particular GM to run a game like Mouse Guard.  Not necessarily a better one, but certainly a different one.  The whole scene framing aspect of the design can lead to a very stop-start game experience if the GM doesn’t handle it correctly.

In one sense, I felt like I was part of a comic strip when I played Mouse Guard.  But each frame felt insular – I did not sense a flow of image to image.  Which is exactly the opposite of the experience that Luke Crane wants the players to achieve.  His passion for playing is palpable.

Would I change my initial review?  No.  Would I give Mouse Guard a second chance as a player?  Perhaps.  Will I buy the book and look to GM myself.  Absolutely. 

The game as described by Luke Crane is the sort of role-playing experience I would like to be part of – and by becoming the GM, at least I can control it.

So when I’ve GMed my first session, I will no doubt give a further review.  At least I’m unlikely to blame the GM next time.





Writing the unique adventure

18 11 2009

Wherefore art thou unique adventure?

At the risk of spoiling the joke, I’ll start with the punchline – there is no such thing as a unique plot/story/adventure.

There, that’s got it out in the open.

Too many GMs give up writing their own adventures because they can’t think of a unique plot. They have plenty of excellent ideas, but when they sit down and analyse their creation, they see a strong similarity to this book or that movie and they wring their hands with despair.

There are a whole host of reasons why you’ll never find a unique story. Every reason makes sense but should never stop a GM penning that great idea just because it’s similar to a recent bestseller.

In fact, there’s a good reason why it should encourage the GM, but I’ll save that surprise until the end.

I’ve been told by different sources that there are only one, three, seven, twenty or thirty-six different plots (and I covered these on the How to Plot series).

I have no idea which version is true and I don’t particularly care. It’s an academic debate. If you analyse a plot enough, you come across enough similarities to categorise is as one basic concept or another.

So on a purely logical level, discarding a story because the plot is similar to lots of other adventures is quiet ludicrous. It’s supposed to be similar – the academics tell us so – and that’s why there are only 1/3/7/20/36 categories.

The next point is that we’ve been telling stories since we could talk. All the unique plots went thousands of years ago.

Now is a good time to pause and reflect on what I’m saying.

A lot of adventure writers – the ones that get published – aren’t really interested in this debate. They just get on and write.

This discussion is for the rookie adventure writer. I’ll be more specific, this debate is of most interest to the wannabe adventure writer. The one that yearns to pen an adventure but feels what they have to offer isn’t original enough.

The key word was in the last sentence.

Original.

Original is not the same as unique. Striving for a unique story is going to stop you ever putting pen to paper. Seeking out an original story is easy. Yet for some reason, despite their power with language, writers tend to get these two words muddled up.

If you listed your favourite books (or films) of all time and considered their plots, you’d be amazed a how many of them – if you broke them down into a simple form – were similar. Each is original, based upon the setting, the characters, the language etc. but none could be called unique.

Consider Walt Disney. He made a fortune recycling the works of the Brothers’ Grimm. Did anyone mind? Hardly. His strength was in taking a standard story and making it original through the magic of setting, characters and dialogue.

Take William Shakespeare. Hardly unique, yet his plays have spawned so many obvious remakes that were successful in their own right. Sometimes the story was copied in its entirety, other times an element was borrowed.

Invariably the setting was changed – either to present day, the future or even using animals instead of people. Think about the following:

  • Romeo and Juliet = West Side Story
  • Taming of the Shrew = Kiss Me Kate and 10 Things I Hate About You
  • The Tempest = Forbidden Planet
  • Othello = O
  • Henry IV Part I = My Own Private Idaho
  • Hamlet = Lion King
  • Twelfth Knight = She’s the Man

There are significantly more books out there that use one of Shakespeare’s plays as a starting point. It’s where they go from there that makes them original. Just setting Macbeth in the 21st century isn’t enough. You need to make more changes to make it original.

I chose films rather than books as the titles above ought to be familiar to all of you. The fact that they were based upon five-hundred year old plays did not affect their box-office.

This brings me neatly to the promise I made earlier. I suggested that similarities to existing plots are actually a good thing. As they say in all of the good washing powder adverts – here’s the science.

Using a plot that’s already been proven to be successful makes the story more workable – not less. Think about it. The plot seems vaguely familiar but the characters, setting and actual reason for the conflict are new. This makes the story original and familiar – a recipe for success.

The only word of warning I would voice is to make sure that you don’t imitate this week’s bestseller. That’s too familiar. Use the classics or at least something that was on the best-seller’s list ten years ago. Make it original – take the element of the story you’re basing it on that means the most to you and change as much as you need to make it your story.

You see, being original is easy once you know what to copy.