At the close of my previous post, the most consistent comment I got was ‘I had hoped for more of a story’, or ‘I wish you had gone more in depth into your experience’. And really, I hadn’t planned to. Why? Because stories about me are — I feel — inherently boring. I rarely do inner turmoil. I’m pretty focused, driven, and single-minded. There are a few things I do feel conflict about it, and until 2 or 3 years ago, I had thought race to be outside of that. So gather around, and I’ll tell you a story, the spiritual successor to my previous story, or perhaps what it was meant to be. I had the words to say, but it wasn’t until I was given the right inspiration that I know how to say them. So while this is a story, it is also an homage, and the stylistic similarities are both intentional and the sincerest form of flattery.
I got to where I am right now
So I’d like to take a minute; just sit right there:
I’ll tell you how I got to the set of sociocultural beliefs I’m at right now and why I think it’s important (especially for gamers) to confront sexism/racism/homophobia within our community because minority groups are already not really taken seriously so all of their bad actions reflect on them whereas bad actions of ‘normal’ people just reflect on people which is why things like Steubenville don’t make the majority of our culture say ‘see, I knew football players were no good’ whereas things like this make people say ‘see, I knew gamers were no good’ when really both of them should lead us to the belief that we live in a self-propagating rape culture
…and I did this all after going to high school in a town called Bel-Air?
Mostly, I’m a GM; so when friends of mine said that he was setting up a group of campaigns and needed manpower, I thought he meant he needed extra GMs. But lo and behold, he needed a player! I was excited and awaited the details for the setting, which turned out to be little more than ‘basically D&D’, so I didn’t have too much setting to ground my character in. For many people, this is a boon! They have character ideas galore and settings only restrict them. After all, they want to play a character who does magic based on rituals, or based on some anime, or whatever, and the campaign just doesn’t fit that.
But for me, it’s the opposite. Given a lack of prompting, I feel unjustified with any details. I don’t have a character idea that I then fit into a campaign; I build an idea FROM the setting. Without a setting, I feel like I have no non-generic ideas.
And so when I started character creation, I was scared. And then I realized something. My fear made no sense. I was applying a standard from my old-school GMing (what if my characters don’t fit the setting) that didn’t even fit my new-school GMing style. I wanted to let players drive games, and yet here I was, a player, afraid to drive a game! I’d like to say that I overcame this fear right away and dove into character creation. But really, I didn’t until that fateful moment when the GM turned to me and said ‘so tell me about your character’. Until that moment, my character had just been a series of numbers, and character creation had been IMPOSSIBLE. But let’s back up a moment…
I want to talk about designing a setting with your players, but I’ve been pretty preoccupied with a piece I wrote elsewhere on sexism in gaming (specifically League of Legends), so instead I’ll show that off. Check it out here!
So now that we have a setting, let’s add in some details! One thing that can derail a campaign most are details. Why? Well, because details are at once meaningful and arbitrary. That is, details have to be consistent with your universe, and they shouldn’t establish any themes which your universe/story isn’t tackling, but they also aren’t always important. I once had to name a tavern at random. So I decided on a color and an animal/cooking object. After all, Black Bull, and the White Swan, or the Red Ladle, are all perfectly good tavern names. And this is how I ended up with the Red Bull Tavern, something Henry was so nice as to tease me about it here, and I’ll probably never hear the end of how I named the Mayor ‘Hamer’, which was intended to be pronounced “ha-Mare”, but ended up being called “Mayor ha-Mayor”. So it is important to make sure to make sure that your random details are unobstructive. But how do you craft important details that are meaningful?
This is the blurb/teaser to a universe I’ve been developing for use in a series of short stories (and soon to be an RPG):
Long ago, history tells of a great war between all the kingdoms, of magic that tore up the earth and sundered the sky, of demons and gods that walked the land, casting down hundreds where they glanced and calling down lightning from the heavens and fire from hell. These wars raged for decades, consuming all the races of the world. And when the dust parted and the blood cleared away, war was the least of anybody’s problems. The dead had risen. Few weapons could be used efficiently against the undead; mortal blows hardly even slowed them. In months, fully a third of the world’s cities were unlivable.
It was then that a major breakthrough was made: magic could damage, and destroy the undead. But while divine magic could repel the undead, arcane magic attracted them, worse, it could create them! Thus began the Great Purge. Any magic that wasn’t sanctioned by the church was hunted down, quickly and brutally.
Now, years later, the world is at an equilibrium. Maybe a quarter or a fifth of the cities and town from after the war survive, but they do survive. Each town is protected by a few priests; the larger the town, the more priests. And that protection remains under a few conditions: any magic users are turned over to the church, the church’s rituals are kept sacred, and the church can take anybody under the age of 18 into the clergy, at any time. If those rules are broken, the town risks losing its protection. And with these rules, rebuilding has begun, of cities and of roads. Of society.
But rumors linger, of rogue magic users who control hordes of undead, or of guilds of magic who seek to use the undead for their own nefarious research and goals, and worst, of corruption inside the church itself. But not all rumors are bad. Some tell of guilds of magic who seek to end the undead problem, of rogue magic-users who roam the countryside, seeking pockets of survivors or of magical artifacts that ward off the dead, and even of cities that escaped the devastation.
This is the realm of Azorius, and these are the tales of its people.
Zombies are one of the common narratives to arise in the modern era. People say this is for a lot of reasons. I can talk on and on about how zombies represent the mindlessness of the modern era, from driving to work to a day-to-day cubicle life to consumerism to the seeming emptiness of modern day choices, whether it be brands of soda or the similarity of politicians. But ultimately, this is unimportant: zombies have captured hearts and minds in the modern era.
We can trace the start of the zombie movie epidemic to three major sources. First, the idea of mindless human beings can be traced to Haitian Vodou. Second, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead can really be called the ancestor to zombie apocalypses. Finally, at some point, the idea of zombies as an infection of some sort has arisen over time, and while I cannot think of a specific source which serves as its origin, the Resident Evil movies will serve as a good exemplar.
So why am I talking about zombies? Because the first setting I’ll be writing about is a zombie setting. And as I said, a good setting plays to tropes, but denies them in some way. A setting that is nothing but tropes will seem campy. On the other hand, a setting that fully defies tropes isn’t really a continuation of the theme, but a new thing entirely. After all, George Romero never even referred to the shambling cannibals in his movie as ‘zombies’, that terminology came later. He wasn’t bringing new light to Vodun Zombies, he was starting a new genre that happened to end up connected to an old genre.
So first, I’ll have to outline what the tropes of zombie apocalypses are, and then which ones I’ll be breaking, and why. Finally, I’ll discuss the effects this has on the universe.
For me, the most interesting part of a creative body of work is the setting. Many people will talk about the characters, and how interesting they are, or the growth they exhibit. Others will point to the plot. But for me, the setting is the foundation; it sets the grounds for any ‘what if’s that the body of work is asking. Now, there are two general qualities of settings.
The first is the obvious: the familiar. By ‘familiar’, I mean that the setting corresponds to our notions of how it typically is. Familiarity is the reason that elves are tall and willowy and removed from the world, dwarves are short and stocky and miners who love alcohol, and halflings/hobbits are playful but possessed of personal hardiness. Familiarity is why protagonists are young and leave their village with mysterious outsiders, and why young people from small towns are protagonists at all. Familiarity is how we know sons kill fathers and hand-loss will show up in half of sci-fi and fantasy, and everything comes in threes. Familiarity is the stuff on which tropes are built.
In this, a good setting is a lot like a good joke. A good joke is all about establishing expectations, building up a story that we all know and understand, and then, in comes the second element: deviation. I agonized over that word for awhile: ‘deviation’. At first, I thought ‘surprise’. But surprise wasn’t quite the word I was looking for. Surprise indicates that you didn’t really see what was coming; didn’t have an inkling. And while there is room for genuine surprise in stories, for the most part, the spectator — the reader, the watcher, the listener — should see the punchline coming. They might not exactly know what that punchline is, but when it does come it should be followed with ‘of course!’ Whether that ‘of course!’ is followed with an ‘I knew it!’ or a ‘How did I not see that coming?’ is largely irrelevant, although it should fall somewhere on that spectrum. That is to say, the context (the setting) should lead up to the punchline.
In a sense, the conclusion — the end of the book, the punchline, the moral — should feel INEVITABLE, even if it wasn’t predictable. When you hear the ending, it should immediately ring true as the ending, or the setting wasn’t established properly. It certainly isn’t impossible that Frodo could simply take the ring at the end of The Lord of the Rings, but it wouldn’t fit in with the tropes of the book: that hobbits are strong of heart and will, that all ages must come to an age, including the age of The Ring and Sauron (much as the age of the Elves is coming to an end even as the books begin), that the thing that distinguished Gollum from Frodo was his close friendship with even just one remaining entity (whereas Smeagol had killed Deagol). Essentially, the plot should live up to the promises that the setting makes, establishing a strong unifying theme.
Now, I’m playing a little fast and loose with ‘setting’, because I’m starting to include parts of the story. But in this case, I don’t mean the plot. I mean the tropes, the imagery, and so on. Sure, discovering the tree elves of Lothlorien happens as a part of the plot, but it is itself not plot; it is a revelation of setting to the spectator. inverting that story in ways we don’t expect but can still clearly see. Reading about a character losing his hand, or being seen surrounded by ravens, or dying and coming back to life is plot, yes. How it happens is plot. But it is also setting, because it serves to establish what tropes the author finds important, and how he chooses to invert them.
If I can walk you through a few examples, I think this will be made clear, but as always, I must warn you of spoilers. In A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones, on TV), Ned Stark is established as the protagonist quite early on. However, he is killed off before the first book in the series ends. Yes, this is a plot point, but also acts to establish the setting that George R. R. Martin is writing in: in A Song of Ice and Fire, life is short, brutal, and ugly, and you can trust nobody. In a sense, this helps to establish the context of the story. And when the punchline finally comes, that context will be important.
So ultimately, a good setting uses tropes and setting devices to establish the tone of what is expected to happen in the plot.
As such, I’m going to try a new project for my new posts; I’ll be posting a setting I’ve designed, according to these principles, talking about the tropes it exhibits, and how those tropes are inverted, and what those inversions mean!
I’m not really a movie guy; I’m much more comfortable sitting at home with a book in one hand and a glass of bourbon in the other while orchestral versions of Final Fantasy (and other video/computer game) music floats in the air. In part, this is because of my social inclinations:
- I’m highly introverted and need alone time; why would I pay to be surrounded by the noises and smells of other people?
- I like that I can read a book at my own pace instead of waiting around; the average movie pacing is too slow for me.
- If I watch a movie in theaters, I can’t re-watch it without paying again.
- Books are within the domain of my imagination.
But largely, this is actually more generational than anything. When I was growing up, geek movies and tv shows were terrible. Sure, you had Star Wars, but what else was there? You could either go for the inanely slow and confusing (2001: A Space Odyssey), the campy and cheesy (Galaxy Quest, which I love), or the underbudgeted (original series BSG). This is most clearly seen in superhero movies. They were either overly melodramatic and operatic (every Superman movie ever) or ridiculously silly (Jack Nicholson as The Joker; Arnold Schwarznegger as Mr. Freeze; Jim Carrey as The Riddler). Now, I don’t mean to impugn Batman or Batman Forever. Those movies were good in their own right, with Jack Nicholson portraying a much more over-the-top Joker, and Jim Carrey being on of my — guiltily — favorite movie comedians. But there was a certain sense in which science-fiction and super hero movies and fantasy movies were all made very tongue-in-cheek, with a sense of ‘we don’t really take this seriously; isn’t it so silly?’
For me, as somebody who GMs far more than he plays, roleplaying is all about rolling with the punches. You obviously can’t predict 100% what your players will do, and you can’t predict die rolls, or whatever random element is important in your system. Basically, shit happens, and you’ll have to deal with it. Here are a few tips I’ve found to make that easier: