A Game isn’t a Novel

by David Meadows 15. April 2019 21:42

 

I have just finished running a section of the game set in 1962. At the rate I’m (not) writing at the moment, it will be decades before I write it up on the web site, so I’m not going to be spoiling anything for readers by discussing it here. And I want to discuss it as an example of how I got the game completely wrong.

 

I started with a few parameters: the game would be set in the 60s, it would involve espionage to give us a change in tone from the war stories of 1940, and of course it would have to have links to the background of the wider universe.

I picked an old set of rules called The James Bond Role Playing Game, which is basically exactly what it says it is. So naturally the players would be a team of British M.I.-6 agents sent on a mission to an exotic locale to spy on a shadowy organisation.

That was the broad outline. From there, I did what I always do: I started to plot the game the way I would a novel. I had no idea of (and no control over) what the players would do, of course, but I could create a setting, a plotline, and a cast of characters for them to interact with.

I started with a villain. Then added a twist so the villain wasn’t who everyone thought it was. Then gave the villain a henchman. Then added six businessmen that the villain was trying to influence, and gave each of them a henchman. Then added three spies from other intelligence agencies that had their own agendas. Then added in one innocent bystander just as a plot hook. So far I have a cast of 18 characters, all of whom have a background, a personality, a set of relationships, a motivation, and a path they will take through the story if the players don’t interact with them.

Then the setting: an island, which needed a geography and a history, an airport with arrival and departure times, a hotel with everybody’s room carefully allocated, a timeline of comings and goings, a weather timetable, phases of the moon...

You name it I thought of it and wrote it down. I could tell you everything about my setting. If I had no players, the story would have run like clockwork, on its own, as all these characters’ relationships unfolded on this island. I could have written a novel with all this in it.

But a game isn’t a novel. It has one huge difference: players.

I put so much effort into making all this background for the players’ characters to interact with, but I neglected to remember that the players also have to interact with it. For an entire afternoon, I have five people that I am solely responsible for entertaining. And because it’s a game, the players need to, well, play. They haven’t come to passively listen to me unfold an awesome story I’ve written, they’ve come to co-write the story with me.

And here’s the problem: spying stories don’t work as team events. James Bond works alone. When you do have an ensemble of characters in a spy story, they split up and work alone. It’s not like super-heroes, where you need to come together to defeat a bigger menace. Spying by its nature is solitary. Go on, think of an example where it isn’t (and I’ll explain why you’re wrong).

So, sure, I knew this. I never meant for all five spies to descend on one hotel room and jointly search it. That’s why I added in so many characters to interact with and a timeline with so many events happening over the course of the story. One player could search the villain’s hotel room, another could be listening in on a bug he’s planted, another could be seducing a potential informant, the others could just be waiting until it was their turn to use their unique skills in some part of the plot.

In a novel, this would be great. You could move from spy to spy, following each for a chapter, unfolding the plot for the reader.

In a game, this is fatal. It means you have three-fifths of your players doing nothing for three-fifths of the afternoon. And that’s the worst thing a gamesmaster can do. Your only job is to entertain your players for an afternoon, and you’ve failed utterly.

I still think the 1962 game is one of the best stories I’ve ever told.

But one of the worst games I’ve ever run.

A game isn’t a novel. It’s a game. Must remember this in future.

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Kung Fu

by David Meadows 28. March 2019 00:10

I'm going to do a kung fu game set in the 1970s.

 

What could possibly go wrong?

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Obsidian

by David Meadows 12. January 2019 01:12

The rules I defined for magic in Atlantean times explain that you can;t cast magic spells while in contact with cold iron. This means that sorcerers who used weapons needed to make them out of bronze or silvered steel. But in casting (no pun intended) for alternatives to these, I decided that the most rare and prized magic-friendly weapons would be made of obsidian. I just liked the idea of evil (i.e. black) magicians using black daggers. I had no idea how you would make such a weapon, or how you would make it strong enough to survive actual use. We'll have to assume that magic is used in the creation of the weapons.

Then the other day I came across this. Somebody has worked out how to cast a knife out of molten obsidian. You can actually do it in the real world!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CA3lIuN_zVE 

Hmm. Ok, not a perfect process. I guess the Atlanteans must use magic for it after all.

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Omnipotent Beings

by David Meadows 1. January 2019 22:52

You shouldn't read this unless you have read Strikeforce chapter 26.

 

I always felt that my universe needed a class of higher cosmic beings. The Marvel Universe had beings like Eternity and the Inbetweener, cosmic enigmas that were so powerful the regular characters couldn't interact with them in any realistic way. They would show up and exhibit reality-altering powers, but always following their own cryptic agendas, not villains, not allies, just... higher beings. I always thought the concept was cool, so I wanted something similar.

I came up with the Golden Guardian, and his sidekick the Silver Sentinel. Back in those early days, my cosmology was still pretty sketchy, so I wasn't entirely sure what they were or how to use them, but obviously I had to use them somehow, so having them rescue Strikeforce from an unresolvable paradox seemed like a good idea at the time.

Because Strikeforce were never supposed to "win" the whole back to the future scenario. They were supposed to have fun exploring this alternate future, win some fights, make some tough decisions, but ultimately they were stuck in a paradox that I had carelessly forgotten to put a get-out clause into. They might have surprised me and found a way out, but it would have been a real surprise, because I didn't have a clue how to resolve it.

So, the only way to fix an unwinnable scenario without ending the entire game was to have an omnipotent being show up, wave his hands, and magically fix everything.

This is basically a Very Bad Idea. Literally, it's the worst thing you can do in fiction. And it's even worse in an interactive game. First, you've made the end very unsatisfactory for players, as they don't feel like they're earned a victory, and worse: they feel like they never had any chance to earn the victory. They're not interacting with the game, they're watching you wave your hands and fix the plot the way you want to. It's just a really bad way to run a game.

Worse, you've now introduced a "get out of jail free" card. If you've saved them all with an omnipotent being once, why wouldn't you do it again? You've removed any challenge from the game.

So I was very careful about how I portrayed the intervention. Made it obvious that this wouldn't happen every time they screwed up and got themselves killed, but that it was a specific response to the time travel paradox. It still wasn't satisfactory, as if you kick the concept too hard more questions fall out: why didn't the Silver Sentinel stop their initial time travel? 

It's just a mess, to be honest. Omnipotent beings are just a bad idea in general. And I almost regret introducing the whole concept.

Almost.

Because, on the plus side: Now I have a set of omnipotent beings. Ho ho ho.

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Stan Lee, 1922-2018

by David Meadows 13. November 2018 00:21

Stan Lee's imagination shaped mine more than any other single person.

Half a million words on this web site, and not one of them would exist without Stan Lee's influence on me. 

And now I don't have good enough words to express how grateful I am to him.

Excelsior, Stan.

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Update 59

by David Meadows 7. September 2018 23:14

Issue 26 of Heroes finally gets to the great sea monster hunt that's been foreshadowed for a while. What are they? Are they real? Does the team find them? Well, you won't get the answers until issue 27 because it's a two-part sory, but it starts here in Under the Boardwalk.

Elsewhere we have...

  • A biography for Marvin Ford who you've probably never heard of.
  • A gazetteer entry for San Francisco, where all kinds of interesting stuff happens (and we haven't even scratched the surface yet).
  • And an encyclopaedia article on The Mine, a fairly important part of the Troll Rock culture that seems to keep cropping up in the story.

Next week will be a scheduled skip week because of stuff, so next update should be 21 September.

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Update 58

by David Meadows 31. August 2018 22:21

Strikeforce have been trapped in an alternate future timeline for six entire chapters, but now we're at the nail-biting conclusion, the final (?) confrontation with the Warscout, with the whole future at stake! Who lives? Who dies? Is there going to be a universe left at the end of it? I don't want to worry you with the title, but the answers are in a chapter called End Times.

And just on the off-chance the universe does survive, I'd better add some encyclopaedia entries too:

  • A key part of the 20th-century superhero scene is the Defense League of America
  • Recurring in the 21st-century world of the Heroes is the subculture known as Trolls (not to be confused with Atlantean Trolls or Bavarian Trolls, which I'll get to in time). 
  • Of absolutely no relevance at all is something called a Green Industries T-50.
  • And this is an old file, but I've updated it to include new characters we've learned about in recent weeks: the Special Police from the 24th century.

 

Next update should be next Friday, and may be a Heroes chapter or may be something else entirely if I get it finished in time.

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Update 57

by David Meadows 24. August 2018 22:15

It's a new issue of Heroes but if you're expecting James, Fred, Sara, Chi-Yun, Jerome, or even Don, you'll be disappointed. NONE of the regular cast appear in this story. Instead, we're looking at their arch-nemeses: the K-Men. I call the story Patriots, and by the end I hope you'll understand why.

 

Then there's the usual eclectic cluster of background files, describing the seen-once-and-never-heard-of-again locations of Joseph Swan's house and the 24th-century Kelley Medical Center, and, God help me, the Unified Wrestling Federation. I'm so sorry.

 

Next update will be a new Strikeforce chapter, due on Friday 31st if all goes to plan. (When does it ever go to plan?)

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Forthcoming attractions

by David Meadows 19. August 2018 19:48

I've just been reading Heroes issue #26, which I wrote 13 years ago. And you know what?

I think I'm a really good writer.

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Update 56 - Atlantis!

by David Meadows 17. August 2018 22:48

A year ago I started writing the Atlantis story, but stuff intervened and I never got past chapter one.

The story of the fall of Atlantis was something that began to take shape over 30 years of Strikeforce/Heroes, as I slowly crystallised my ideas of magic, demons, and so on. Starting about five years ago, I began to properly plot it, and make it a proper part of the Heroes universe.

If you read the chapters published so far, you will have no idea how or why it relates. But hopefully the links will unfold in time and begin to make sense.

And if not, I hope it's at least interesting as a story in its own right.

So this week I've added 13 new files to the site, all relating to the story of Atlantis. The main piece of fiction is Chapter 2 of The Last Days of Atlantis, but as it's been a year you might want to read chapter 1 again.

Some key historical events have been put into a timeline which you can find listed on the Historical Overview page.

The area that the story primarily takes place in is documented in The Peninsula, including a map! (Fantasy stories always have to have maps.)

And finally, an encyclopaedia page which explains all about Atlantean Magic.

 

Next week's update will be back to a regular Heroes issue. 

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About this blog

The Heroes Universe is an ongoing work of fiction, conceived and chiefly plotted by David Meadows, with help from a group of friends, over a 30-year period.

I am slowly documenting the Universe on this web site.

This blog is a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of that history.

If you're new here, the series of posts listed below will explain what it's all about. I hope...

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