Why you won’t see the UKTV RPG Channel any time soon…

26 06 2008

The genius Lore Sjöberg has a piece on Wired about why exactly Cookery and Roleplaying books are so similar, and yet the cultures are so different.

Pop over and give it a read.


How to create great characters.

13 06 2008

You should know as much about your characters as they would know about themselves. Oh, sure, you don’t need that level of depth for a short story (although it’d help, if you’re really struggling), but for anything longer than 10,000 words you’d better have a really good idea of who they are, what events shaped them, how their past informs their outlook on life, and why they want whatever it is they’re after.

Two-dimensional characters often come about from an outline such as this:

David was born in 1965. He discovered he was a wizard at the age of 13, and since then has been studying really hard. He is now a really powerful wizard. He lives in San Francisco.

What? Is that it? David’s whole life revolves around him being a wizard? Has he no family, friends, rivals, enemies, pets, favourite foods, lovers, overdue books at the library, or any other influence which could turn him from a dull set of facts into a living, breathing person?

Here’s the thing. You might be writing about a powerful wizard living in San Francisco, but he’s also a human being. Well, he is for the purposes of this example. Here’s a shortish checklist of things a human being generally knows about himself:

Birthdate of himself, his parents, his siblings, long-term partners and friends.

The schools he attended.

What pets he or his friends / family had.

How popular he was at school, and whether or not he’s still in touch with school friends.

His employment history.

When and where he met his best friends and / or lovers.

Their names (usually, although it speaks volumes about a character who can’t list his lovers).

What he likes and dislikes (from food and drink, through to holiday locations, political viewpoints, and “certain kinds of people”).

Date of death of anyone important (a parent, a sibling, a best friend).


And that’s just your basic starting point for a human being. If your character is from another race, he’ll know just as much about himself, just with facts pertinent to his race’s culture – he may not know what “school” is, but his race might follow a rigid path of indentured servitude or military service, about which he’d know just as much as a human does about their school days.

And I’ll step in now, Mr. Clever Clogs: If your character is an amnesiac, you still need to know these things.

Then you layer in what makes your character stand out from the crowd. What makes him the hero, the antagonist, the ally, or the Tin Dog? What makes him get his arse off the sofa / rock / grassy knoll and get involved in a story? All this should come from the world you’ve built to set your story in (you did do that bit, right?): If your world is contemporary London with Vampires, did a Vampire kill his sister? If your world is a distant planet with spleen-sucking aliens, did he witness a spleen being sucked and get so terrified that he’s acting purely in self-defence? Has he been living a dual life, or has this taken over his life? Is he in contact with his world, or has he been removed (or removed himself) from it?

Since stepping off the path of dull, normal life, who has he met? Has anyone taught him what he now knows? Has he teamed up with others who seek the same goals? Is he still with them? If not, why not? Has his new life utterly changed his personality? Was he an easy-going guy before dog-faced beetles chewed his father’s head off? Have new-found powers made him overconfident, or does the new playing field scare him to death?

I mentioned earlier that your characters are after something. This is vital. Without desire, they won’t move forward.

All your characters must want something.

All your characters must need something.

What they want and what they need are two different things.

So let’s look at David the San Francisco wizard. Let’s say we now know what school he attended, what happened to his parents, who mentored him in magic, and all those other great facts. Instead of a couple of lines we now have two or three pages of background (or more – don’t be shy now). With all these facts you’ll have a better idea of the kind of guy he is – trust me, you will. How he’s dealt with enemies in the past will inform how he deals with them in your story. Does he hurl fireballs, or does he retreat to the library and research his foe? Is he too prone to losing his temper, or is he such a perfectionist that enemies run unchecked while his nose is in a book?

What does he want?

Why does he do what he does? Does he want to become all-powerful, or does he want revenge? Does he want to protect those unable to defend themselves, or does he want to rule the world? Does he seek to cure his wife from a Lich’s curse, or does he want to become a Lich himself? If he doesn’t want something, he won’t strive for it, much as if you don’t want money you won’t bother turning up to work every day.

What does he need?

Oh yeah. Now we’re down to the guts of it. What is it that your character needs, that he’s unaware of? What would truly solve his problems? He may want revenge, but maybe what he needs is closure, and revenge won’t give it to him. Maybe he wants to find that cure, but what he needs is to recognise and accept that even his power can’t achieve everything. Perhaps he wants to protect the defenceless, but he needs someone to make him feel protected.

What he wants and what he needs should conflict one-another. And the moment you give him either, the story is over, unless you can replace one want or need with another want or need. Remember that if you want to draw your story out into a series.

Nobody wants to read about a character who’s got nothing to do.

Narrative / Plot Hooks. How, When, Why, and How Not?

4 03 2008

A hook is a narrative device to hook (harr, geddit?) your reader and reel them in. Traditionally percieved as something with which one opens a story, I’m afraid it goes much further than that.

You see, once your reader is hooked and reeled in, what’s to stop him jumping out of the keep net?

Why, more hooks, of course!

A hook is useful to get your reader reading your story. But you must maintain interest, or you’ll lose him before you’ve reached the end together.

Some authors make their living through judicious application of hooks. Dan Brown, for instance, has made a fortune with the very simple structure:

Chapter 1: Hook, narrative, hook.

Chapter 2: Second character narrative. Hook.

Chapter 3: Back to the first character. Resolve hook. Narrative. Hook.

Chapter 4: Second character. Resolve hook. Narrative. Hook.

Continue until end of book is reached.

Grabbing an audience, then, can be said to rely on the hook that you use. And some hooks have been overused to a point beyond cliche. Honestly, how often have you seen, read, or played a variant of:

The character(s) is(are) in a drinking establishment. A strange (often old and shrouded in darkness) man approaches him/her/them and speaks the fateful words: “I have a job for you.”

That’s not to say a cliche can’t be refried and served as something new. The best variant of this I ever heard of went something like this:

“A man enters the tavern, takes a seat, and slaps a six foot lizard down on the bar.”

The best hooks ask nothing but questions. They give no answers. They are unusual and startling, and force the reader to continue to sate their now-aroused curiosity. One of the most famous examples of such a hook comes from the masterful Iain Banks’ novel The Crow Road:

It was the day my grandmother exploded.

The questions this immediately poses are many, including the identity of the narrator, who his grandmother was, how the heck she detonated, why she exploded, why he’s speaking of the event in such a calm manner, and what else happened that day. In one sentence.

If you want to hook readers, you need to be that masterful, that clever, that good at wordcrafting. If you want to sell your fiction, or even just entertain an audience (such as roleplayers, the harshest of audiences short of eight year old children), you can’t just say “So I was sitting in the crematorium and grandma’s pacemaker went pop.”

Let’s see if I can give you some more examples.

Citizen Kane.

Another masterful hook. After lots of panning and zooming, of seeing the extent of Kane’s vast wealth, we enter his huge and rich bedroom, and hear one word.


Then his nurse covers his face with the sheet. This man we thought the film was about has just died. Who or what is Rosebud? Why is it so significant as to be his dying word? How did he get to be so wealthy? Why is a nurse all he has at his bedside? Where are his family?

American Beauty.

A fabulous example of a longer hook.

My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood; this is my street; this is my life. I am 42 years old; in less than a year I will be dead. Of course I don’t know that yet, and in a way, I am dead already.

Lester seems to tell the audience all they need to know about him, but in fact all he does is ask questions. How does he die? How is he already dead? Is something extraordinary afoot in this very ordinary suburb? What will happen to such an average, normal person to cut their life short at the age of 42? Could it happen to you, too?

One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez.

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

What is the Colonel being executed for? What has turned this young man into a military man, then into an executable criminal? Where does he live that he has to “discover” ice? Does he live in an environment where it doesn’t occur naturally?

Earthly Powers – Anthony Burgess.

It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.

Who is the narrator? In what society is he living? Is bedding a young boy acceptable in his era? How does the narrator come to be in a position whereby an archbishop may stop by? Was the meeting scheduled? Is the narrator deliberately in bed with the catamite to annoy the archbishop? Who is Ali?

I’m sure you see what I’m getting at by now. So let’s see what you need to avoid:

  1. Cliche. If you can’t tell whether or not your opening line is cliche, you don’t read enough.
  2. Waffle. I swear to you if you ever want to entertain others with your writing, you do not start off with three paragraphs of thesaurus abuse whilst dithering about when your story should actually begin.
  3. Mundanity. Nobody wants to read a story that begins with the protagonist’s half-hour attempt to find a parking space because he wants to buy a newspaper.
  4. Redundancy: Don’t have the plot hook be a pointless waste of time (you know the drill: Cargor the Wolf Hunter asks you to kill a wolf, even though you woulda thunk that were his job).

From there on it’s down to you. Don’t just put a lid on the keep net and hope that’s enough. Fill the damn thing with barbs as long as your arm!


22 01 2008

Quite some time ago I was invited to produce some extremely short fiction snippets for Victoriana 2nd Edition, produced by Cubicle 7. I did, and they were included in the core rule book, which is currently awaiting a reprint after selling out.

Well, Tamsyn and I decided to combine our evil powers and work on live-action rules for the game. This is all very speculative at the moment. The idea is to come up with a LARP system that is so fabulous it woos Andy, the line developer, and convinces him to give us the green light that’ll enable us to rush away and write the whole book.

Primarily, and understandably, Andy’s concern is the system. And it’s been a long, long time since I last wrote an RPG Tabletop to LARP conversion.

Tamsyn and I have decided to work separately at this early stage, then pass our ideas to each other, cherrypicking the best of both sets of thoughts and smooshing them together into one cohesive whole. Thus I’ve been spending a good deal of time familiarising myself with Victoriana 2nd Edition, as well as re-reading published LARP rules and my own old conversions. Alas I’ve reached a rather troubling epiphany.

Most LARP rules… Well… They just don’t work, do they?

Admittedly I quite like the Mind’s Eye Theater system. There’s clearly a reason it’s been at the forefront of LARPs for a decade or so. It’s relatively simple, and requires the player carry nothing more than his character sheet. But the sheets are often so complex that a player’s whipping the sheet out every few minutes to consult with it, and if all you want is a one-off scenario for an evening’s gaming, you’ll lose precious time while this goes on.

Then there’s Maelstrom. Another great game, and great set of rules, but these guys put games together on a national scale, and they hire out whole locations in which to play, so their rules allow (nay, encourage) physical representation (i.e. twatting each other with imitation swords). With the exciteable nature of most police forces around the world coupled with the near-1984 level of surveillance within the UK, I suspect we should shy away from this kind of LARP too. Even if one hires a venue, there’s no guarantee that someone across the street won’t dial 999 because there are a bunch of people dressed as Victorians waving swords around and punching one-another.

So where else do you turn for inspiration? Well, there’s that great stalwart, Cthulhu Live. Except the rules are actually surprisingly fiddly. Players should be out there playing, and not having to call the GM over for every little thing.

Ultimately I suppose that I have to admit it: what I’m looking for is the Live-Action answer to Dogs in the Vineyard, a game where the GM can sit back and trust the players to work together (purely on an out of character level, obviously) to make the game fun for all, with as few rules, statistics, and challenges as possible to get in their way.

There’s another spanner just waiting to be thrown into the works. Victoriana is a game that is very strict about Social Class. If you’re a pauper, you will simply be ignored by aristocracy, and sneered at by the middle classes. If your aristocrat wishes to investigate something and the trail leads him to a dockyard, nobody there will talk to him, because it’s far below their station to do so. You know what’s going to happen, don’t you?

Yes. Fifty characters in the same room, all of differing social classes, refusing to interact.

Still, never let it be said that I’m not one for a challenge…