I am very much excited about WotC’s announcement that they’ll be shifting how they portray (and thus limit) ‘inherently evil races’ to open up much greater latitudes in alignment, abilities, societies, and etc. For one, the term race is confusing, since these are really whole different species. For two, just as our species (humans) are vast and varied, so too should be and can be members of other species (whether elves, or dwarves, or kobolds, or orcs). For three, it’s far more interesting! Automatic evil is easy (and still available, be it through fiends or monstrosities or undead) but allowing for greater agency by the antagonists is more juicy, and the meatiest stories often deal with the ‘evil within’ (both individual character but fellow humans/etc acting in very bad ways) vs an external and ‘black box’ kind of auto-evility machine. For four, as someone who finds attribute bonuses the least interesting way to differentiate different species, I hope this pushes more games (even if D&D itself likely won’t adopt this unless they ever do make a new edition or come out with an optional ruleset) towards more nifty species talents/stunts/feats (such as the Dwarf’s resistance to poison, or the Dragonborn’s breath weapon) that create far more interesting options, capabilities, and side uses for players.
For five, and of great importance, is this: who we know ourselves as a person and as a collective people is/are thoroughly governed by story – the story we know about ourselves, the stories we tell about our community, the stories we speak of about the world. As such, the stories we make up and tell each other for entertainment absolutely has an impact on how we view, interact with, and treat the real world and others within it. They are not separate. Thus to say ‘this race is all bad’ or ‘this race is always big and scary’ or ‘this race is really only good at this’ creates mental traps for us as we relate to and deal with others in our actual and lived lives.
So yeah. Doing away with the more rigid stereotypes and tropes and that present a gameworld view that one’s place, role, competencies, and expected outcomes in the world are governed primarily (and almost entirely) by factors of their species and instead moving towards the item(s) that often draws us to our favourite fiction: culture, style, worldview, way of life, way of building things, and ways of dealing with things. In short: towards character.
Because character and characters are what an RPG is all about.
I love this story, as published in the editorial of Dragon magazine, issue 144, penned by Roger E Moore:
The mountain pass was called the Demon Tongue, which implied there might be a demon and treasure there, so the party headed for it right away. The characters were hungry for combat and cash – lots of each. I was the DM. We were gaming on the pool table in the medical company rec room in West Germany, a decade ago last fall.
Not many of the details of that adventure are left with me now, but I remember what happened when the adventurers got to the Demon Tongue. The paladin was the point man, mounted up and armored like a tank (he had volunteered for, no, demanded the position). Some distance behind, the wizard was checking the landscape with his amulet of ESP, hunting for enemy thoughts. Everyone else was gathered near the wizard, weapons ready. They were on a narrow road in the pass itself, with a slope up to the left and a sheer drop to the right, when the wizard got a reading. Continue reading
As you’ve likely noticed, I haven’t written anything further on crafting the ruleset for our upcoming Star Wars campaign. That’s because the starting date got moved up a bunch and my time had to be focused on writing the rules rather than writing about the rules. Our first session was last weekend and it went well! And there’s already a few tweaks to make, which is cool and exciting – I knew there would be plenty of things to fix and refine and it’s great to do some honest actual playtesting!
I’m prepping like mad for this weekend’s game (and I need to make the opening crawl, of course), but I fully intend to return here to share the rules writing process, the nuances of the rules themselves, and to demonstrate how to take the core Aurora engine and craft an entire system out of it that supports the style of gameplay perfect for the game and campaign.
Until then, let’s talk a bit about… Kickstarters!
For the first, I got my copy of the Cortex Prime book (in PDF form) and W O W. It is a thing of beauty in terms of graphic layout (and hopefully in terms of organization too… I haven’t given it a thorough enough read with a blank perspective to assess it yet). I already had experience with the rules and liked them, so there was no disappointment there either. But what really caught my eye and has me super thrilled was reading all the contributors. Because many of them worked on other systems I have enjoyed, some of which were systems that they created. Which means that these creators – and sellers! – of their own rules nonetheless helped develop and play with other rulesets and enjoy them. It’s this great circle of everyone having fun and supporting each other (again, even if some might otherwise see them as “competitors”) and playing all sorts of different types of games and using the rulesets that support them. That’s just super heartwarming to me.
For the second, a new campaign just launched today on Kickstarter for something that, if you’re picking up on the theme here by now, has me giddily excited: an RPG based on the genre of Franco-Belgian graphic novels (aka bandes dessinée).
“It’s just a kid’s movie.”
I do not like this phrase. As a way of excusing or justifying poor storytelling (or, worse, a poor story), it feels weird to me. As in, is the person uttering it really trying to say that because it’s for a child, it’s OK if it is not well made? That quality doesn’t matter? That throw any ol’ thing onto the screen and that’s enough?
Because to say that in other contexts can be quite bizarre, no? “It’s only a child seat. Quality isn’t important here.” “It’s only kid’s food… it doesn’t matter if its good or healthy, they won’t know the difference.”
To me, the thing is, they’re our children. We should want to provide them with the best. To give them the biggest and best leg up in life. To let them grow.
No, that doesn’t mean a movie has to dissect the epistemological underpinnings of post-dynamism economies, but kids are way more capable than we often give them credit for. And no, that also doesn’t mean that every movie has to teach something either (though they can), just the same as it is for adults. There are plenty of rich, amazing, and profound stories we can tell, and tell them with excellent storytelling craft that engages, whether it be to inspire, to enlighten, or to simply amuse. Or to do all three at once, and more.
And that’s the biggest thing for me about that phrase… because it’s not like there aren’t already excellent examples of movies ostensibly made for kids that are, well, excellent. Movies that are excellent on many levels. Take many of the works of Pixar, Disney movies (including my most favourite, of course), and, most certainly, the amazing (even stunning) works of Hayao Miyazaki. Movies that are moving, Illuminating, full of heart, and that deal with the inner drama of both children (in a most profound Mr Rogers way) and of people in general. While also being appealing, funny, delightful, charming, and captivatingly well told, a pure delight to watch.
So much so that not only do kids like them, but they are movies that are beloved in a general sense, from young to old alike, and whether we have children ourselves or do not. They are simply good stories. Good movies. And good stories attract everyone.
We can make these amazing stories. We do. And kids deserve them. There should be nothing “just” about a kid’s movie (or any other work of fiction).
And I invite us all to ask for it.
As we go through life – and this is doubly so when we are young, for it starts very early on – we hear things, see things, and learn things about the world and about living in it. Things that we ourselves are years away from having to actually live through or to deal with. Even in the cases where we experience some aspect(s) of it directly, like being a child of a parent, we are not on that end of it yet. It is still some other world that lives out there in our, potential, future.
But we’re still getting ready for it. Not deliberately… no, our minds are simply always vacuuming in all the data it can and vacuuming it in from everywhere. Some comes from directly observing those around us, some comes from hearing what they say and describe, some comes from education, and a surprising amount comes from the stories we hear. Just by the sheer amount and presence of media (be it books, movies, TV, etc) and, especially, due to the narrative structures they use to make it compelling, the stories we consume play a big role in what goes into our vacuum.
And like that our minds continue to pull it all in, cross-referencing, checking which ones agree with each other, bolstering those that are repeated, and all the while forming its model of the world. A model that turns out to be invisible to us and that is, to our day-in and day-out lived experience, simply reality. It’s how things are.
Until that one day when BAM! In an instant we cross that bridge and are now confronted with a whole ‘new’ situation. BAM, married. BAM, a parent. BAM, in the workforce. BAM, an adult. BAM, (fill in the blank here). All of a sudden, we’re thrust into it. We’ve never been there. We’ve never done this. We’ve never been in this position before. There’s nothing for our prediction engine to guide us on how to behave/be/act.
Except, of course, for those realities, all those things about the world and living in it that, for years, our mind has dutifully been storing and crafting. And so we immediately pull from it, and likewise immediately begin living it out. We perpetuate it. It becomes a self-fulfilling story. Even if the outcome may not be great or bring us or those around us joy, freedom, love, or peace of mind, it’s how it IS… we’ve even got all this evidence for it. How could we act or be in any other way? It’d be like breaking the laws of physics, right?
Not at all. No physics breaking required. Just being present, mindful, and remembering that many of the ways we experience things and many of the ways we be in life are not intentional on our part. We weren’t squeezed out of the womb with it. Rather, we are just repeating a pattern that we automatically cobbled together over time. And, most importantly, it doesn’t have to be that way, nor do we have to be that way. It is interruptable.
And with that we instantly gain a measure of freedom and choice. In that clearing, we can reorient ourselves towards new and glorious possibilities, possibilities that enliven us and all those around us.
Let’s dive deeper into the Storytelling post from Sunday, for there’s a lot of good stuff to explore that goes way beyond the stories we find on the printed page, stage, screen, or even those shared around the campfire. We can take the concept and begin to examine the ever-present stories and narrators that surround us every day, including the most important – the ones in our head.
Simply put, many of the things around us that we take for granted open up and take on whole new meanings when we look at the framework that surround them rather than the thing itself.
This is especially potent to dovetail it with the conversation about systems and on the notion of the path(s) of least resistance. These systems, be they writ large or the very personal, are mostly never derived in a vacuum; instead they come about, evolve, and are kept in place by notions and narrations. So too is the same that keeps them in place, reliably producing the same outcome over and over again, even and especially when that outcome is, to one degree or another, deleterious.
This is also a great concept to fortify against false dichotomies. “It can only be this or this” is not only missing the vast possibilities of both our capacity but also the variations of the universe, but it is also weaponizing a tightly woven narrative that forcibly limits the conditions as to make a binary outcome inevitable.
I’ve long been fond of noting, “We talk about the economy like it’s gravity.” That is, we talk about it like it is a, or maybe the, fundamental physical force in the universe over which we have no choice but to do its bidding. Except, when look through a telescope at the cosmos, or when we look through a microscope at the micros, we find no evidence of “the economy” shaping things. It is the narrative that creates the container we’re in and that turns it into “This is the way it goes; this is the way it has to go.”
As ever, little is truly inherent. Contexts, however, can make it seem like so. By bringing mindfulness, inquisitiveness, and a little literary wonder we can read beyond the lines to see the author’s hand at work, freeing us to see things more broadly and more clearly. Whether in determining who we know ourselves to be as an individual, or who we know ourselves to be as a society, or as a species, the constraints melt away and we’re open, ready to write our more perfect future.*
* Which, of course, in turn we can, at a later time, revisit and see the additional “author’s hands” that were perhaps invisible to us at the time, letting us once again go beyond to write an even more perfect future… and on, and on, and so on.
“It’s what the story required.” “It’s what the character had to do.” “It’s the only way it could have gone.” “It needed to happen.”
If you’re experiences are like mine then you are likely familiar with these types of answers from authors/creators when you ask them about elements in their stories, be it about events, outcomes, or, most often, what the story is about or is trying to say. I’ve asked numerous authors on numerous occasions these types of questions, and responses in this vein, have always puzzled me.
Because… aren’t you the author? How is it that it must go his way? That this is the only way?
As the author, you’re the creator of everything! From the most basic premise to the context in which things unfurl to the impetus that starts the action to the characters that inhabit the story, and so forth. It’s all invented. Tweak one little thing and everything beyond cascades and unfurls in a whole other way (or ways).
Corey Doctorow recently wrote an article about this, and regardless of whether one fully likes where he takes it or the examples he gives the main useful takeaway for me remains shining the spotlight on those seemingly inviolable constraints that force a story down a particular path to a particular ending to see that they are inherently part of the creation. There is no “must” there. It’s all (a) setup.
Now, every story contains a series of constraints and contrivances. I’m not arguing against that. (Though, and this is in a completely different vein than our main conversation here, but if your story uses a whole flock of vast contrivances and coincidences to move things along then I humbly suggest your story still needs a lot of work.) What irks me about this type of response is not the mundane or pure logic about things, but rather that the author most likely has made these choices to set up the “inevitable” for a reason, and even if those reasons are hidden from their view by not answering the question they are not taking, or willing to take, ownership of the reasons.
Out of that I begin to wonder if they are trying to hide behind the supposed “objectivity” of things. That is, they know what their story is conveying or is trying to say, but they are not willing to proudly stand behind it to hold aloft the concepts and explain why they set things up that way (and, by extension, declare what they’re trying to say).
Natch, it is also possible that they don’t know or didn’t think about it, in which case, fine, but still I’d invite that the better answer is “Huh, I don’t know! That’s interesting, let’s talk about it and see what comes up…”
This is starting to sound a bit rant-y, so let me wrangle things back to say what I myself am trying to create here: an invitation to look at and engage with your work more fully and recognize there is no inevitable, and to not hide behind feigned neutrality and pure calculus. If your story conjures something up and you are asked about it, see if it was your intention. If so, stand behind it and say what your story is saying. If not, how fascinating! And use that to further develop your craft.
“…our relationships with works of art, particularly those that have a massive impact on us, changes as time goes on. The things that inspire you at 16 probably won’t inspire you or at least in the same way at 26 or 36 or any age past that. And even if something has soured in your mind, mocking it wholesale seems more a sign that you still need it, and less like you recognize its flaws while appreciating the role it played in your life.”
— Andrew Saladino
I really like what Andrew creates in his video essay on outgrowing movies (and outgrowing art in general). The whole trope/idea/action of “growing up = trashing what you liked before” is unfortunate. Perhaps it is a misunderstanding of the phrase “you must leave things behind”? Either way, outgrow is a much healthier word: “I used to like that and it used to hold meaning for me. Now, it doesn’t in quite the same way. While it may not be perfect as I remembered it, it still shaped who I am, and I can revel in my excitement for it back then. I can let it lie in the middle ground and go forth boldly.”
And for those times we revisit something and it is everything that we remember it to be — and sometimes revealing itself to be even more meaningful now? Then its time to dance on the rooftops in unbridled excitement!