Role-Playing Games

by David Meadows 14. August 2016 22:22

I've mentioned more than once that this entire work of fiction is based on a game, and I'm long overdue for explaining what I mean.

Before it was a web site, the Heroes Universe was a Role-Playing Game (hereafter referred to as RPG for short).

RPGs have been around for more than 40 years, with Dungeons & Dragons being the first and probably best known example. Obviously they are games, and they involve a group of people sitting round a table and moving pieces around, but other than that they're completely different from how "traditional" board games work. For a start, they take place mostly in the players' heads rather than on an actual board.

In an RPG, players don't compete against each other, they work as a team to solve some puzzle, problem, or conflict. One of the players creates the puzzles for the rest to solve. He is traditionally called the "Games Master" (GM). Some games use different terms, but I prefer GM so that's what I'll use here.

That's an RPG in a nutshell. But that's very superficial. To understand better, we have to look at how the GM creates the "puzzles" for the players.

First, I don't mean a simple puzzle like, "Rearrange these matchsticks to make a triangle". I mean a puzzle like, "You have been sent back in time to the year 1987 where you have to stop an extra-dimensional threat from destroying the universe." Ok, from now on let's say "plot" rather than "puzzle," because that's basically what I've just described. That sentence could be the plot of a novel.

Once the GM has the plot, he needs to create a setting to put it in. So he creates a world -- he thinks up some background details about the 24th century, comes up with the idea of a super-powered police force, and so on. Next, he needs an antagonist for the plot -- let's say, a super-powerful robot from some place called "Dimension W", who is sending a signal to summon his invasion fleet. Finally, he needs to know how the puzzle can be solved -- let's say smashing the robot's communication machine is the answer, but let's make it difficult by protecting it with a force field, and furthermore having the army unwittingly helping the villain.

That's the GM's job finished. (Well, the easy part of it. He has more to do later.) All of this springs entirely out of the GM's head, of course. He's bought a rule book for the game, but that doesn't tell him what plot to use. He has to write his own plots. And he's the only player involved in the game so far; he's shut in his room on his own writing all this down ready for when the rest of the players come round on Saturday. (Being a GM is a good job for people who like writing stories. That's why I do it.)

Now the players come in. The GM describes the idea behind the game to them -- "You're police officers in the 24th century." That's literally all he needs to tell them. Well, he might need to elaborate on details, but at the moment the setting is all they need to know. He doesn't tell them the plot in advance, because the game happens when they uncover the plot for themselves.

As the GM is responsible for supplying the plot for this story, the players are responsible for supplying the characters. The GM will ask each one of them to create a character that could fit into the story he wants to tell. Based on the background he's revealed so far, one player might say, "My character is a futuristic secret agent trained in espionage and unarmed combat", another might say, "I'm a genetically-engineered human, faster and tougher than ordinary men". Another might give the GM a complete headache by saying, "I'm a demon!" (Great, thanks, did you miss the part where I said I'm doing science fiction?)

The rule book the GM has bought will give rules that allow him and the players to define exactly what their characters can do -- how fast they are, how strong, how good at fighting or sneaking around -- but that's not the important part of the character. The important part is when the player says, "My character loves reading old comic books and always dreamed of being a super-hero, that's why he's in the super-police. Also, he makes bad puns." That is a character. That's what you need to know when you read a story: not how fast the character can run but why he's doing what he does.

Everything is ready. Then the actual play of the game starts, and the GM's actual hard work starts.

First, he describes where the characters are, why they are there, and what they can see. "Your team reports as ordered at the Institute for Temporal Studies, teleporting there [he has explained how his future world works, so they know about teleporting around the world] as a group. Two guards are at the door ... and Nightflyer's intuition is giving him bad vibes about them."

Then the players describe their actions: "I'll challenge the guards," "I'll punch one of them," and so on. That's why its called a role-playing game. Each player plays the role of a character within the game world. You try to act "in character" -- speak as you have decided the character will speak, pretend that you know only what the character should know, say that your character is doing things that make sense for the personality and motivations you have created for him. None of us are under any delusions that we are great improvisational actors. But in effect, that is what we are doing.

The GM will determine the results of the players' actions (this is where the rule book often does come into play, as you might actually need to know how strong or fast the character is to decide if their actions succeed) and describes what happens next. Then the players (acting "in character") give their responses, and the story is driven forward.

While the players are acting the roles of their characters, the GM only (!) has to act the role of every other person in the universe. The two guards at the door? That's me. The villains inside? That's me. The chief of police? Scientist? Computer? All me. Everybody the players' characters might interact with in the world has to be created and acted out by the GM. Sometimes I've played multiple characters at the same time, arguing with myself while the players watch. Oh, and at  the same time I'm making sure we use the rules properly, I'm trying to be fair about allowing their actions to succeed or not, I'm weighing up the implications and deciding what should happen next if they do/don't succeed, I'm remembering what plot secrets I have and haven't told the players yet, remembering everything the players have told me about their characters, and desperately hoping I will be able to think up an answer on the spot for when the players ask me something about the world that I haven't thought of in advance.

Because obviously, although the GM knows how he wants the story to go, he has no control over what the players might do at any given decision point. Perhaps they misunderstand a clue he gives them and go the "wrong" way. Perhaps they react in a way he didn't expect. Perhaps they ignore the villain completely and spend four hours arguing among themselves. (Yes, I have have had afternoons like that.) Literally anything can happen when the characters created by the players meet the plot created by the GM.

And that's what the GM loves. Because for four or five hours on a Saturday afternoon, he and the players are literally making up a new story, set in a world he has created. We call it a game, but the truth is, it's a collaborative work of fiction.

And that work of fiction, documented over the course of almost 30 years, is what you're reading on this web site.

I designed the world. But it's not my story. It's theirs. Ours.

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Getting ahead

by David Meadows 12. August 2016 21:39

Just uploaded Strikeforce chapter 6 but currently writing chapter 8. I need to keep a few weeks ahead or I'll never maintain the weekly schedule. Strikeforce chapters are the most time consuming to write because they're more poorly documented than the Heroes stories.

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Week 11

by David Meadows 12. August 2016 20:08

The second story arc of Strikeforce comes to a conclusion with Chapter 6: Killers.

And the first major Strikeforce character gets a who's who biography: The Computer. Yes, I know it's a computer not a person, but computers can be characters too! If you've been following the story, you'll realise that the Computer is actually the most important character. Or at least, that's what it thinks.

Over in the Heroes corner of the universe, Don's mission reports continue, commenting on issue 5 of that story. And I'm launching a new section: The Los Angeles Globe news headlines. The concept behind this series of articles is to illustrate what's making the headlines while each chapter of the story is taking place. This will give an insight into the wider world, and perhaps how it differs from our own. And possibly some headlines will foreshadow events that our heroes will become embroiled in. I'm not saying which ones, of course...

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Serendipity

by David Meadows 11. August 2016 10:01

I know I'm going to set a story on Saturn's moon Titan, I just don't quite know what. I have a setting and backdrop of events, but I haven't yet come up with an interesting conflict to drive the plot.

And then a news story from NASA this morning fills in the blanks for me:

http://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/cassini-finds-flooded-canyons-on-titan

So now it's all completely obvious.

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Unity

by David Meadows 6. August 2016 23:42

I've just been sorting out some formatting problems on Heroes issue 6 and thought, "Wouldn't it be a nice idea to say some words about writing it?" Don't read this post until you've read the actual issue!

First, the title: Unity. The meaning is obvious (Temple of Unity) but I liked how it fitted with part two of this storyline, Zero, which you will read in issue 7 (and also has an obvious meaning, as you will see). Is there hidden symbolism in the title? Sometimes I try to do that with the titles, but I don't think there is here. There is certainly no unity within the team... indeed, they're barely a team at all and are trying their best to fall apart in this issue.  One of James's catchphrases will become "We're not a team, we're a group." Though I'm not sure when I'll actually work that into his dialogue in an issue.

Narration is in the form of Fred's blog. It's not likely that Fred is actually publishing all this stuff in a blog on line, not when he's supposedly on the run and keeping a low profile. But it suits the narrative purpose, so let's suspend our disbelief.

Using Fred as the narrator lets "him" tell us his background. Rather than go into great detail into his "origin story", I've shown just one scene from his past, and devoted only one page to it. But it's a vital scene, and really everything you need to know about Fred is in that one page. I may have mentioned already that Fred was created by David Allan, not by me (I need another post to explain where all this story originates...), and that page one is my "fictionalised" description of the background Dave verbally gave me. I think Fred is an amazingly deep and complex character, and that makes him hard for me to write, but scenes like this one just write themselves, because I can so clearly see in my head how Fred would narrate it, his voice is just so strong. And I can't take any credit for that.

In a couple of previous issues I've adopted the format of page one being a compact scene told in six panels, with page two being a single big panel to show a big group or action shot. I've done it here again, and I think I'll try to stick to it because I like how it works. Here there's no action, just a group "portrait".

In fact, there's no action in the whole issue, really. It's just a lot of people talking. The plot of this issue is actually really minimal: the group hears of some dodgy goings on, go and investigate, and Sara gets kidnapped. It's a simple story, but one with repercussions. It will become more apparent in part two, next issue, but there's more to the Temple of Unity than meets the eye. I put a lot of effort into working out the whys and wherefores of the organisation, and we're only scratching the surface here. I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying this encounter is the start of something that will become very important further down the line.

But although the story is important in introducing the Temple, the main thing in this issue is the relationships we start to explore. I've deliberately left a lot unsaid, and hinted at far more than I've revealed. I'm not sure whether this makes readers intrigued or annoyed, but this series is planned to run for a long time, and I want charatcer details to unveil themselves naturally as time goes by rather than being dumped in massive blocks of exposition.

Page three. Fred handily recaps the plot so far. This may seem a bit redundant, as the previous issues are there for you to go and read, and anyway it's only been a couple of weeks so you've surely not forgotten what's happening. But the point isn't to tell you what's happening. It's to tell you what Fred thinks about what's happening. I could summarise the plot six times with six different narrators, and each one would be different. By the same token, as each character does something fairly unimportant on the next couple of pages, we get to hear what Fred thinks about each of them. This is why I like the rotating narrator idea, and I'll certainly be sticking with it. (Over in the Strikeforce story, I'm not doing that. I'm doing an omniscient third-person narrator, with random interjections by the Computer as narrator. But I'm doing a lot of things differently in that story.)

Did I just say the characters are doing unimportant things? That's not actually true. They may be trivial things, unimportant to the plot, but I've chosen them to say something about the characters in every case. And that's important. Consider:

James. He's writing a journal of his adventures. We learned from his narration back in issue 2 that he learned how to be a hero from his father's journals. So of course he's writing his own journal. Everything James does is to live up to the ideal set by his father, and sometimes he interprets that need too literally. Also note that in a century when everyone's using computers and phones, James is writing on paper with a pencil. Why? Well, trust me, there are important reasons. I'm just not ready to reveal them yet.

Harry. We still don't really know -- not really -- whether Harry is real or whether Paul has multiple personality disorder. Fred thinks he knows. But consider this: where did Paul, an office-bound clinical psychiatrist, pick up an intimate knowledge of vintage firearms? It's not conclusive evidence, but I'm just throwing it out there.

Chi-Yun, the shape-shifter, is printing photographs of herself. "So I don't forget when I change." Oh my God. That's just... that idea just breaks my heart. What must that be like for her? It's... no, I can't imagine what that's like. It's awful. But as a concept, it's genius. No, I didn't come up with the idea. But I wish I had. I love Chi-Yun. There's more to her than you (and Fred) expect.

We don't really get much insight into Sara here, just her reactions  to Chi-Yun. But that's ok, her time will come. I've got a lot to say about Sara, but I'll let her say it herself (starting next issue, as it happens).

And then there's Don, steady, reliable, calm and in control. He's the driving force behind the whole narrative at the moment, though for various reasons that can't continue. I'll get to that in time...

And you know what? My word count tells me I've written 1100 words, and I've only covered the first four pages, which is ridiculous. I'm going to stop this here, and if anyone really wants me to continue with the next 18 pages you'll have to tell me. But I'm not going to do this with every issue, that would just be insane.

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Week 10

by David Meadows 5. August 2016 21:45

Welcome to the next weekly update of The Heroes Universe.

This week's fiction is issue 6 of Heroes. You've probably noticed that each issue has been narrated by a different character, and this week it's Fred's turn. It gives me the chance to go a little into his background, his personality, and maybe even the reason he stays with a group where he's clearly not comfortable.

Fred was created by my good friend David Allan, and he created a character so rich and complex that I wasn't sure I could do him justice in my writing. But I'm happy with how the episode turned out, and I hope Dave would have been too if he was still with us.

This is the first time I've felt that there has been enough revealed about a major character to make it worth writing a biography page. So there's now a bio of Fred, which doesn't really reveal anything new but does summarise everything we know so far. Don't read this until after you read issue 6! There is also, for the first time, a character portrait! This is something I would love to have for all the characters, or at least the major ones, but I lack the resources to commission artists to do them... the pictures of Fred are by my friend Tali Ritz, and I'm not sure how she perfectly captured how Fred looks in my mind because I don't think I've done that good a job of describing him! (She's done a perfect Sara too, which will appear in the near future. But that's all I've got at the moment.)

This week's encyclopaedia page covers the Los Angeles Globe, a newspaper which you might have spotted in the story already, and which will ultimately have important links to both Heroes and Strikeforce.

Finally, another of Don's mission reports finds Don musing on the bunch of misfits he appears to have picked up.

I think that's it for this time. As always I'm happy to receive comments, queries, and requests to get on and write any particular pages...

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Week 9

by David Meadows 29. July 2016 22:38

Yes, I know I missed a week. It's not my fault! And nobody complained anyway, which probably means nobody's reading.

The main addition this week is chapter 5 of Strikeforce. The time-stranded team pays a visit to a man called Professor Zod in 1987, and things don't go at all accoring to plan...

To complement this, there's a biography of the 24th century version of Professor Zod... confused? You will be... after you realise that this Strikeforce chapter also contains a guest appearance by young Don circa 1987, who's currently starring over in the Heroes story as old Don circa 2014...

Talking of Don, I'm also experimenting with a new section: Don's Mission Logs. These will go hand-in-hand with each issue of Heroes and give Don's personal view of each day's events. I'm not sure if I'll do this regularly, so let me know what you think of it (if you're reading at all...)

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Week 8

by David Meadows 15. July 2016 19:22

This week's new story installment is issue 5 of Heroes. This chapter introduces Harry, and gives some idea of how Paul Smithsteen's multiple personality "power" operates. Other than that, it feels a bit like filler (I probably shouldn't be admitting that!). I was still finding my way, and working out what type of story worked for these characters. I think the two part story coming up in #6 and #7 is where I hit my stride, so bear with me while I set up the pieces for that.

Talking about setting up pieces, you might also spot the first obvious link back to Strikeforce in Heroes #5. There's a slight problem in telling two linked stories set 20 years apart, in that things you will read in one story will spoil certain things that are supposed to be revealed in the other story (and it will happen both ways). But there really isn't anything I can do about that if I want to write both stories (and I do). So consider it a feature, not a bug.

Elsewhere this week, you'll find articles on the Council of Science and Police Chief Kadnez from the 24th century, and at the opposite end of the timeline some hints at a story to be told in 11th-century Constantinople.

Onwards and upwards...

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Week 7

by David Meadows 8. July 2016 20:07

Over on the site's home page you will find links to this week's new content: chapter 4 of Strikeforce, a timeline of the events of 1987 revealed so far (read this after you read chapter 4!), an encyclopaedia entry on the Institute for Temporal Studies (are these the real villains of the piece?), and a who's who entry for Viper (which rounds out the quartet of 24th-century villains and lets me move on to more interesting characters).

I think chapter 4 of Strikeforce is the one that I've most enjoyed writing. This shows the first steps of the characters changing from super-powered science-fiction police officers to real, proper super heroes in the traditional mould. We get secret identities, the start of a permanent supporting cast, and some actual proper intra-team relationships developing. In the Game, this marked the moment when I think I realised it had long-term potential and that the players were happy with the direction I wanted to go.

Ah yes, the Game...

I've promised to write a blog about the Game that this site sprang from. This post isn't it, but I'll get right on it...

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Week 6

by David Meadows 1. July 2016 21:28

If you hop over to the home page, you'll see the usual gaggle (collective noun for waffle: "a gaggle of waffle") of new pages.

This week's story update is chapter 4 of Heroes: In The Woods. Don leaves the group to fend for themselves, and you just know that's not going to end well...

The history update is a timeline of the "Heroes" year, 2014, which at the moment is pretty short (the events have only covered two days!) but will grow from here on into something substantial.

In the encyclopaedia, there's a complete contrast to last week's science article, as this one explains how magic works. Yes, my universe has both science and magic, and they coexist very comfortably thank you.

Finally, a skeleton bio of Discord, the sonic-powered villain from Strikeforce chapter one.

Next update will be next Friday, see you there.

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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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