Good deaths at LARP camp

I’ve been busy teaching children to die well with make-believe swords. More importantly, I’ve been busy showing them that “winning” a sword fight doesn’t make you the most interesting or coolest character in the scene. Relatedly, I died a lot.

Near the end of our adventure game, shortly after I had led the campers in an oath to continue my mission (defending the land from dragons), I died to the big bad. It was a scripted death. It was also, if I may toot my own horn, a good one. I was lucky enough to have not one but several people come and pay their respects afterwards. I think a few of our campers have realized that they can have a good time and make good scenes with each other, improvising a good scene rather than struggling to win.

I’ll be very pleased if that sticks.

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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.

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.

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 in Genres: Detective Noir

I wrote about Scope, Scale, and Stakes recently, but I didn’t give clear examples of how they shift during the course of a story. I’ll try to give a more concrete account of that here, with a focus on one particular kind of story or genre.

Let’s try the genre of detective noir. Continue reading

Setting Work for Swamp Gangsters

I did some thought exercises and prep work for the setting I developed for Latour and their friends, back around the time that I wrote the first story in that setting. I didn’t share any of that work with an audience when I wrote the first stories, but climate change has been eating up most of my brain space today and this seems like an appropriate time to share.

Yes, Latour and Ren and the Pats and Cap all exist in a loose version of our world. No, I haven’t ever decided exactly what year it is.

But there’s a reason that everything in those stories happens on boats and floating structures.

When I was first thinking through the setting for that group of stories (I have more that I haven’t posted, due to wanting to be paid for them at some point) my thoughts were as follows… Continue reading

Characters’ Emotional Arcs, Quick Thoughts

I had a frustrating but informative (and helpful) experience this afternoon while attempting to fix my plotting problems for the sequel to Barium Deep. After I had resolved multiple problems with my plot arcs, charting them out for my own clarity and future reference, I couldn’t plot one of the emotional character arcs that I wanted for Cesium (the POV character for the second book).

I wasn’t doing anything very complicated, just tracking some of the beats for the specific section of storyline that I wanted to follow. That made my struggles all the more obvious.

Minutes before, I’d plotted out a parallel series of arcs for a totally different story; they’d flowed easily, and made good sense. They were simple, straightforward, and very formulaic—which felt fine for the first pass on an idea that came to me last night. I’m sure that they’ll change and become more interesting once I’ve worked more with that story. If they don’t, I might discard the story or put it on ice.

But those arcs, with their clear points of conflict, transformation, and growth, had come so easily that my difficulty with Cesium was glaring.

A brief aside: the idea that came to me last night dealt with using magic (or something similar) as a manifold metaphor for anger, and perhaps war and military service, with weaker connections to violence and abuse.

The physical plot for Cesium felt simple and straightforward. It fit neatly within the expected bounds of adventure fiction and other upper middle grade stories. Even though I know I’ll change it in a heartbeat if I find something else more emotionally and thematically compelling, it feels good to have laid it out. The problem with Cesium’s emotional arc was that I was (and still am) unsure of what approach I want to take, or how to zero in on Cesi’s changes in ways that will feel rewarding without feeling too neat or pat.

I think it comes down to disliking the pattern of total character transformation that I’ve seen in some middle grade stories. I find incomplete transformation more rewarding, because of how it allows individuals to face their struggles as slightly modified versions of themselves rather than as different people. This fractional shift of self is less important when a story covers a long period of time, as more shift can occur without seeming too abrupt. But when I want a reader to follow a character’s emotional shift from A to B, I feel it helps to highlight the ways the character is still uncomfortable / unfamiliar with their new experience at B. At some point they’ll feel comfortable in the new experience, and that will be cool, but if the story is about them facing that experience I want facing it to be dramatic, tense, uncertain.

The upside of all this is that I think I’m closer to a working draft of Cesium’s story. But I clearly still have more work to do.

Death, Mourning, and a LARP

It feels funny to say this, but… death has been a big part of my life.

Not in any ground-shaking, crushing way, but as something slow and omnipresent and always visible. I suspect my mom’s work with the elderly and in hospice influenced that. I learned that people react oddly to their own incipient death, and that they have many ways of coping with the loss of those they love.

I lost several pets before any family I knew died. Those experiences weren’t at all the same, but in some way the one helped me with the other. Now, most of my grandparents’ generation is dead. I’ve lost friends younger than me, a cousin, others. I was so choked up with an unwillingness to process grief that I took years to say goodbye after my first grandpa died. Saying goodbye to my friends hasn’t really been easier, except insofar as I know that mourning them is a cycle I will revisit many times.

This is something that I’ve thought about more in the past few years. Coco really drove it home for me. I knew after watching that movie that I wanted to create something that would help others learn how they could mourn, learn how they could remember even as they let go.

I’ll tell you more about this when I’m not racing a deadline, but I’m working on a LARP that I think might do some of this. I want to give my players a chance to experience grieving for others, and being grieved for, in its entirety. I want that to be a healthy experience, one that allows for connection and catharsis. And I want my players to have fun. I hope it works.

More details soon.

Exploring Political Stories

I spend a lot of time thinking about stories and what they offer us, their audiences and their authors.

It isn’t radical to describe a continuous circular relation between us and the stories we tell about ourselves. Nor is it radical to say that many stories we tell can be read as being about ourselves, whether they were intended to be or not.

Where am I going with this?

I’ve studied the creation and propagation of ideology through political speech. I’ve studied the creation of stories.

I don’t know why it took me so long to write something here about the political stories we tell ourselves.

Now, when I say political stories, I’m specifically talking about stories that are incorporated into political speech. I refuse to draw a line and say that these political stories are the only stories which are political—any story, like any art, is political. But I’m most interested in talking about the stories that we use, consciously or not, to ground our political arguments. I recognize that this is a somewhat mushy definition.

How much substance, and what sort, do I need before I’m willing to call something a story? Do I need to have an entire literal Horatio Alger novel about gaining wealth through the assiduous practice of Protestant capitalist virtue before I’m willing to call it a story? No. I’m willing to call most things that we tell ourselves about the world “stories” for the sake of this exploration. The important part, as far as I’m concerned, is that what we tell ourselves inform the way we see ourselves (or other people) and inform our actions going forward.

To clarify, “Some people have blue eyes,” doesn’t qualify. But, “People with blue eyes are good,” does. So does, “All men are created equal.”

Furthermore, you needn’t explicitly say “people with blue eyes are good” anywhere in your story if people are able to infer that from the text. And it’s possible to infer from a text stories that the author didn’t intend to include. Stories—and people—are tricky like that.

I suspect that’s part of why political ideologies aren’t static.

I’ve come to this late enough today that I’ll stick to this introduction for now. I already have some ideas of political stories I’d like to explore in more depth in the future, but I think any particular story I explore will deserve more time than I could give it today (and I want to post today). If you have a particular story you’d like me to write and think more about, feel free to leave suggestions in the comments below.

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.