South of Ela Cartaz

I’m away Thursday, so here’s a little setting-seed to tide you over:

There is an island on the southern coast of Ela Cartaz, where the winds bluster chill and wet. Under the moss and rot and the hanging vines, beneath the old trees whose roots eat older mortar and clutch at broken foundation-stones like pearls, there is a warm light. This is the light sought by many, the light for which thousands died before the fall of the first Ela Cartaz. It waits in darkness, while around it the remnants of a lost past whir and click and hum.

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The Theater of the Moon

This is intended to be a setting seed for some future story or game, like The Chapel of Weeping.

There was once a theater on a small island set in the river’s delta. Some of it remains. The city it was part of fell ages ago; after the city was sacked by a victorious army its people fled, were captured, or were put to the sword. The theater escaped the initial destruction, and was protected from the fires that raged through the city by its watery border. As such, it is one of the few places in the ruined city which still bears the clear marks of its builders. Unlike most other places in the destroyed city, none of the theater has been scavenged for building stones.

The theater’s finery was stripped by more organized looters after the sack. No surviving city folk or other locals participated in looting that theater, however, for it was said to be holy. Indeed, the vessel used by the looters sank in a freak storm several days after reaching port.

Rumor has it that the people who took the theater’s riches each suffered exquisitely awful deaths, and each family of theirs which did not dispose of the treasure soon fell to similarly terrible fates: slow wasting disease, all-consuming madness, cruelly ill luck. Whether or not this is true is widely debated, but these stories are favored by those who still live near the fallen city. They’re also popular as ghoulish legends amongst the descendants of those whose forces ruined the city so long ago.

The queendom which sacked the city, and whose people looted the temple, has since fallen into decline.

The theater, when it still stood wholly intact, was said to have a very particular ceiling. Intended to magnify moonlight, it captured the moon’s beams to light the floor of its amphitheater, at its brightest on the most holy nights of the moon’s phases. It is said that the theater could transport its audiences to unknown heights when the sacred plays were performed on the proper nights, but it is not known what those plays were, which nights those were, or whether the “heights” referenced were emotional or literal.

There are no publicly known survivors of the theater’s cult. It is a puzzle which has intrigued many for centuries.

Be Boring: Making fun characters, Quick Thoughts

Last week I said that your characters should be hungry.

This week I’ll add: be boring.

“Be boring” is for your character’s history, it’s for their personality, it’s for their hopes and dreams. Character creation doesn’t have to be a painstaking chore. You don’t have to create a beautiful new being, perfect and unique.

Be boring. Be average. Be a familiar trope. Use things you’ve seen elsewhere.

Be unoriginal.

If you’re really stuck, Continue reading

BE HUNGRY: Building your own Buy-in, Quick Thoughts

So many of the stories we tell, so many of the stories we read, are about reluctant heroes and passive adventurers. But those character tropes are woefully misleading and destructive when it comes to driving collaborative story-telling. Characters like that work in fiction because the creators of that fiction spend a tremendous amount of time finding ways to force the characters into action. That’s time and effort that you don’t see or recognize when you look at the story as a consumer. It’s time and effort that can suck energy out of gaming groups.

This is about defying those tropes, and having fun while doing it.

You don’t sit down at a diner counter and demand that the waitstaff convince you to buy food; you’re there because you’re hungry. You picked that place because 1) you already know they have something you want, or 2) you want to try something they have.

Besides, insisting that waitstaff Continue reading

The Chapel of Weeping

This is intended to be a setting seed for some future story or game, like The Knife Tree or The Tower of Peng the Unprepared.

The Chapel of Weeping is a series of seven spaces, one large central one and six smaller ones surrounding it, connected by paths like spokes. These spaces are set into a cliff face so that the central space is cut into it, forming a massive alcove. Two of the small spaces are thus wholly inside the cliff, two are chambers with windows and doors that open to the outside, and two are outside the cliff and entirely open to the elements.

The central space is mostly filled by a massive statue, a figure paused in a moment of benediction. It towers up, several stories tall, and dwarfs any who set foot in the space. Through some strange miracle, the figure weeps endlessly. Its tears run down the figure’s face and leave the flagstones before the figure slick. There is enough room in the space to walk two abreast all around the statue, and passages have ben cut through stone to reach the four spaces partially or entirely inside the cliff.

The two spaces outside the cliff are simple flagstoned circles, outlined with pieces of unfamiliar rock. People who live nearby have many stories about the purpose of those areas, though few of them agree. Some have called them gathering places for the holy or the faithful, some have said that they are where sacrifices must be made, and others claim that they were only added to give the rest of the chapel a feeling of balance. They are undeniably of the same style and construction as the rest of the chapel, however, and apart from the unfamiliar stone used to outline them the circles are paved in stone carved from the cliff.

The two spaces to either side of the central space and its giant statue, the spaces which are partially open to the outside, hold altars which have been worn by ages of use. Some still pray in these spaces, and the altars may be covered in the wax of votive candles or the dusty ash of burnt incense. These spaces are used by lay folk and travelers, despite the rest of the chapel being largely abandoned. Some have reported receiving miracles in these places, when praying in a spirit of repentance, contrition, or love. There is a great deal of carved ornamentation on the walls of these spaces, though some has clearly been damaged.

The two inner chambers of the chapel complex are not used by anyone who lives nearby: while locals describe the rest of the chapel complex in reverent tones, these chambers are believed to be better left alone. Entirely unlit, they are rumored to be tied to the more dangerous sides of grief, and it’s said that only those in the throes of deepest loss may spend time in them safely. Others claim that they’re safe so long as they are lit by flame. Everyone agrees that foolish people have disappeared in them, and that strange noises can sometimes be heard echoing from them on starry nights. It is well known that the inner chambers were used extensively by the order of clerics that once maintained the chapel, but since the order’s dissolution the inner chambers have been left largely untouched.

Scope, Scale, & Stakes, Longer Thoughts

While Mattias was telling me about a game he’s preparing for, and the layers of growth and reveal that he has planned, he reminded me of terminology I’d first learned in Kenneth Hite’s 3rd ed. GURPS Horror sourcebook (this links to the 4th ed.). Page 71 of the 3rd edition book introduces “scope” and “scale,” two narrative concepts widely applicable to stories beyond horror-gaming. They’re not necessary for good narrative construction or fun gaming, but they’re extremely useful for both analysis and planning. They’re also likely to show up regardless of whether you intend them to or not, and manipulating them is a straightforward way to change tension in a story.

It’s worth noting that scope and scale are related to but separate from stakes. I’ll cover changing scope, scale, and stakes to affect tension later.

First, I’m going to roughly quote Hite’s definitions of scale and scope, and then follow up with a definition of stakes.

In Hite’s usage, scale is “the level at which protagonists are interacting with the world, and the results of their actions upon it.” Characters operating on a prosaic scale are struggling for their lives and hoping to simply get by, while characters operating on an epic scale are larger than life and deciding the fate of countries or worlds. Scale is a measure of the grandiosity of a character’s actions, and it’s possible to operate on multiple scales simultaneously, or to change scale rapidly without detracting from a story. As an example of multiple simultaneous scales, a hero might struggle to survive the onslaught of a demon (prosaic), knowing that if she can withstand it and defeat it she will change the fate of her world (epic).

Meanwhile, Hite defines scope as “what the PCs can see,” meaning the boundaries of their awareness or the perceived importance of their actions. If a story’s characters only know about the spread of a dangerous cult in a small town, or a single person on the run from one person who wants them dead, that’s a fairly narrow scope. The scope is broader if the story’s characters know that this dangerous cult is the latest outgrowth of a wider group bent on finding a potent mystical artifact in the town, or if that person on the run holds a larger power which might ultimately defeat the nation which sent their hunter to murder them. Furthermore, it’s useful to distinguish between a story’s visible scope (what we’d usually just call scope, and what characters are aware of at any given time, like “there’s a cult in this town”) and the story’s actual scope (what the characters might discover, like “this cult is just the tip of the iceberg”).

Stakes, meanwhile, are whatever is in jeopardy, at risk, or to be gained by a course of action. A story’s stakes inform the scale and scope, though it’s possible for them to operate independently. For example, the life of that person on the run is relatively small stakes, and a story about keeping them alive might have a prosaic scale. But as the characters’ visible scope expands (through gaining more information about the world) and the characters recognize their position in a larger story, the stakes increase and the scale at which the characters are operating may take on multiple levels. In that above example, the characters’ struggle to save the person’s life is prosaic, but may ultimately have epic consequences.

Not every story needs scale, scope, or stakes to change. Sometimes we just want something picaresque, episodic, or repetitive. But I think those repetitive stories are less popular than ones in which scale, scope, and stakes change and grow.

And even within those more repetitive stories, there are often changes to the characters’ visible scope: the characters recognize that “X is bigger than we’d thought,” and thus the stakes (and tension) rise. This change in visible scope can happen for characters and audience simultaneously or separately, but it most often happens for characters shortly before the story’s climax. In the denouement following the climax, the visible scope often recedes once again, as various plot threads are tied up and completed. Characters may still know that something greater is going on, or that events are operating at a larger scale, but their access to that broader scope usually diminishes with their part in that larger story.

So, expanding stakes and visible scope are straightforward ways to heighten tension. Focusing on the prosaic scale is also useful for heightening tension, even as it often expands alongside scope and stakes. Remember: expansion of scale is okay, because characters can operate on multiple scales at once… and can feel more relatable by struggling in prosaic conflicts despite possessing epic powers.

Because variation in tension is considered de rigueur in most adventure and dramatic genres, those stories generally thrive on changes in scope and scale. This is especially true of long-running stories that involve character empowerment, or which cover new ground; without that variation in tension, and believable changes in characters’ scale and visible scope, audiences lose interest. Similarly, arbitrarily or too-frequently returning to prosaic scale and stakes will eventually rob that technique of its tension. The eighteenth time Batman fights a dangerous baddie isn’t as tense as the first time.

What does that mean for us as writers or storytellers?

We can plan for expansions of scale, scope, and stakes. And when I say plan, I really mean “have a very general idea of what might change.” If you’re making stories collaboratively, e.g. playing RPGs, it’s best to leave little hints and clues for you to pull on later and tie into something bigger for the players to discover. It’s not necessary to know how those things will work, or what they’ll connect to when you put them there! You could do all that work, but then you run the risk of never having players discover anything you made because they wanted to go elsewhere or follow other clues.

If you leave little hints and tidbits lying around, and have general ideas of what the larger scope, scale, and stakes might look like, it’s easier to put everything together when the time comes and players finally follow those leads. A villain’s ties to a larger organization or their correspondence with an unnamed person are useful here. Likewise, when the PCs learn the specific modus operandi for a particular group and recognize that elsewhere in a new situation, they’ll often connect the dots and identify the relation between the two. It’s all about building up the skills and world-knowledge of your players (or audience), and letting them draw the connection and feel that frisson of understanding (and maybe dread).

This has gone longer than I’d anticipated. I suspect there’s more material here. I may revisit the topic.

Character Connections & Motivations, Longer Thoughts

I recently ran an impromptu game of D&D 5e for some friends. While I was asking the players for their character’s connections to the other players and the world around them, one person said (I paraphrase) “I don’t have any connections. I live alone in the woods and don’t know or care about these people.”

I was a bit short with the player in response, and pushed them to come up with some connections, even if they didn’t feel like close ones. The player did.

Reflecting on that moment…  Continue reading

The Knife-Tree

As with The Tower of Peng the Unprepared, this is intended to be a setting-seed for some future story or game.

The knife-tree stands tall at the top of a high cliff, a hard rock face that rises out of the woods below. The knife-tree is so called because it rises to a sharp point, limbs blown back into a shape much like a belt knife when viewed from the bottom of the cliff. It is well known as a landmark in the surrounding area, and was once a favorite lookout spot. It is now assiduously avoided. The locals swear that something odd and dangerous has nestled in its roots for the past two generations at least.

The cliff beneath the knife-tree is riddled through with caves. A few of the caves are inhabited by large and hungry beasts which roam the forest. Several of the caves were clearly once occupied by intelligent stone-workers, but none of the locals know any details beyond ancient stories of folk who lived there underground. Those stories all agree that the folk ruled the surrounding land, but beyond that they’re muddled: some claim they ruled kindly, others speak of their arbitrary nature, or their greed, or the wondrous way they had with the forest around their caverns. Each family passes on their own tales.

Regardless, the locals all agree that there used to be treasures of great value in the caves beneath the knife-tree, left by the stone-workers. They also agree that those who sought the treasure were cursed to wander ever deeper into darkness, never to be seen again. That last part may be a later addition to keep young idiots from tempting the beasts that lair in the caves, or the unknown thing which has roosted at the top of the cliff.

Potential hooks include: legends of the stone-workers, hunting ancient treasure, a hunt for the beast that lairs beneath the knife-tree, desperate locals pleading for help dealing with the beasts beneath the knife-tree, seeking a path into the dark through the stone-workers’ caverns.

The Tower of Peng the Unprepared

This is a quick glance at a location that came to me this morning, something I might put to use in a story or game in the future. It’s deliberately scant, intended to spark more ideas and let me fill in the details later, without committing it too firmly to any one setting or story. I’ve written it such that I can replace any backstory I establish here without altering the physical location. Maybe you’ll also find it useful or inspiring.

Continue reading