Parallel Stories

by David Meadows 3. December 2016 22:24

(Number 8 in an occasional series. See sidebar for full series.)

 

Last time I wrote one of these essays, I explained how the Game storyline had two distinct parts, set 20 years apart. In the Game, I could throw in references to the past in order to amuse the players, while they implicitly agreed not to use their knowledge of the "past" to cheat in the "present".

If I was writing this story sensibly, I would start with Strikeforce chapter 1, write 300 chapters of Strikeforce, and then move on to Heroes issue 1, set 20 years later, so you would be reading the story in the order the players played it.

Of course I didn't do that. I started writing both stories in parallel.

One one level, I hope it adds interest to each story for the reader. When you met Don in Heroes #1, hints were laid that he had a long and (hopefully) interesting history. When you met him again In Strikeforce #5, you get more of his backstory from another end. James tells us that his father was the leader of Strikeforce 20 years ago, and although you haven't yet met "Major Democracy" in Strikeforce, I hope you're seeing clues to his identity by now, and I hope it's whetted your appetite to see the story of Major Democracy unfold. [Note for later readers: this blog is being written between the publication of Strikeforce 12 and 13.]

But adding clever back-references to whet your appetite is one thing. "Spoilers" are something completely different. And that's going to be a problem for me, if it hasn't been already.

On the big scale, the obvious spoiler given right from the start of Heroes is that some time before the mid-90s, an Event removed the powers of every super-human on Earth. So you know the eventual fate of Strikeforce. Except, you've got 300 chapters of story before then, and does knowing an end is coming really change how you view those chapters? Everything ends ...

Smaller scale spoilers are more of a problem. In Heroes #4 I introduced Frank and Carla Marks. A week later, in Strikeforce #4, you learned that Electron's real name is Franklin Marks. A chapter after that, you (and Electron) met Carla Zod. Have you joined the dots yet?

So is there any point in me writing their unfolding romance and eventual marriage in Strikeforce? And is there any point in me putting either character in peril in 1988 when you know they're going to survive to 2014?

Hmm.

Would you avoid watching a costume drama about Anne Boleyn because you already know she'll marry the king and lose her head in the end?

It's not the destination, it's the journey. This is true for all literature. (Except for those that rely on "twist" endings. And I can still do a few of those ... I've got lots of stories to tell, and lots of characters to play with, and they won't all have their endings spoiled in advance.) And where endings are "spoiled", I hope I'll make the details of the journey to those spoilers interesting enough that you'll still want to read the stories.

The other thing, going back to the Anne Boleyn analogy, is that I consider this a "history" as much as a "story". Strikeforce are real! Everything you're reading really happened. That's why I can write encyclopaedia and who's who entries about these people. And if they are real historical figures, then just like Anne Boleyn, it's ok if you know they are going to be beheaded in the end. (Hold on ... no ... I can't think of any Strikeforce members that were beheaded. So that wasn't a spoiler.)

I don't want to tell you how you should or shouldn't read something, but I think that to get into the spirit of the story you need to embrace the cross-references as something that's adding depth to the journey, not spoiling the destinations. Look for the characters that cross over. Think about how they might have got from A to B, what happened in the "untold" years between the storylines. Hunt for clues in the encyclopaedia and history files. There's a big picture, a whole universe to reveal, and you're not going to get it revealed in a linear -- or even logical -- order. This is deliberate. Go with it.

I'll make mistakes, and I'll accidentally over- (or under-) expose some things that I'll regret later. But I'll do my best to make each part of the saga entertaining.

And when it goes wrong, you need to tell me.

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Twenty Years Later

by David Meadows 27. November 2016 00:08

(Number 7 in an occasional series of explanations. See sidebar for the full series.)

As already described, this story started life as a game. The original protagonists were Strikeforce, and their initial adventures were set in 1987. That story is being serialised on the site.

After about 7 years, and 300 "chapters" (playing sessions), I decided the Game was much too unwieldy, too big and complicated to manage any longer, with too much weight of storyline and character history to keep track of. I decided to end it in a big, dramatic fashion. I created a storyline I later called The Event, in which all Earth's heroes sacrificed themselves to save the Earth. End of the Heroes, end of the Game. I was out of the superhero-GMing-business.

For a couple of weeks. Then I realised I couldn't leave the Game behind. It was too much a part of my life. I needed to resurrect it. But how?

After a couple of false starts and bad ideas, I hit on it: a new storyline, called Twenty Years Later. Which would literally be that. The same universe, twenty years later, with the players playing completely new characters. Twenty years after the Event, a new generation of heroes was emerging. Their story is being serialised on the site as Heroes. The players had full knowledge of the pre-Event world, of course, but the idea was that their characters didn't. 

Throughout the new Game, I used as much of the old history as I could as background. There's James, saying that he's the son of an old hero (the player had my permission to put that link in James's background--in fact, it might have been my suggestion to him, because I wanted the storytelling opportunities that link would bring). there's Sara, the daughter of an old villain. Don, a pivotal character who was directly involved with Strikeforce 20 years earlier.

In some cases I deliberately hid crucial bits of information to keep the players guessing--the identity of Sara's mother, for example. And in fact, the exact details of Sara's power. Her catchphrase in the early Heroes issues, "I'm good at finding things", was a catchphrase I had her use in the Game. It clearly pointed towards a particular--wrong--character as her mother, misdirecting the players. When the true nature of the power slowly became obvious, the identity of her mother (who once had the same power) became obvious--to the players, not their characters, of course. (For clarification: Sara wasn't a player's character, she was one of mine.) 

In other cases, I made the nod to the past more obvious. When they met Franklin Marks, the players all knew it was Electron, twenty years older and without powers. But being good players, they played their characters as if they were completely in the dark. Because that's the essence of role-playing: you make your character act within the bounds of the character's knowledge, not your own knowledge.

Incidentally, the player who originally played Electron in Strikeforce played Fred in the Heroes era. When Fred met Franklin Marks (Heroes issue 6), I played Frank, the player played Fred, and the conversations the two had are fairly faithfully reproduced. Read that issue again, bearing in mind that Fred's player once played Frank, and think about how beautifully he played "in character", not letting his player knowledge colour his actions. In fact, read it keeping all of the players in mind: James, Fred, Harry, Chi-Yun, all of their players walked into the Marks's house knowing exactly who they were. Not a single player "broke character" to let any of that knowledge influence them.

The same pattern was repeated over and over throughout the Game. History crept in and became important. Sometimes it crept in merely for background colour, to amuse the players. Sometimes it was a mystery posed for the players' benefit, something that had no bearing "in game" but the players could amuse themselves figuring out who or what a particular call-back referred to. But every time, the characters behaved exactly as they should with the information they, the characters, had.

That's really satisfying to see, as a GM.

But when it comes to translating the Game to the story you read on the web site, this time jump (or at least the way I have chosen to deal with it) has caused a whole set of problems. That's going to need a lot more explanation, so I'll talk about it in the next of this series.

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From Game to Story

by David Meadows 9. November 2016 22:19

(Number 6 in an occasional series. See sidebar for the others.)

I've described how this story started life as a game, and the steps I went through to create that game. But how did the game then become a story?

The game generates a lot of paperwork. Everything I plan to happen has to be documented, and that then has to be re-written to reflect what actually happened after the plan meets the players. At some point, I thought it would be fun to re-write it in story form rather than a dry history of "X went to Y and met Z", and that's how this web site came into being.

There are a few problems in making a role-playing game session into a work of prose fiction. For a start, game sessions aren't neat and tidy the way stories are. Players don't always follow my plots, either through pig-headedness or because they've missed some vital clue that I thought would be more obvious than it was. They go in the wrong direction. They explore the wrong things, say stupid things to the wrong people, and generally just act like a force of choas blundering through my plots.

Fiction writers talk about things called "story beats", which are the key moments that logically advance the story: X happens then Y happens then Z happens ... if these things don't happen in the right order (and with the right amount of dramatic pacing between them) then the story either makes no sense or feels flat.

Naturally, players excel at doing X followed by P, Q, F, skipping Y entirely, and blundering on to Z. It's just ... not dramatically satisfying. Oh, it's satisfying to play, but that's because the players are actively invoved. It's terrible to read afterwards. Even if it makes sense, the pacing is terrible.

So when I write the story I ... "adapt" it. Think about a Hollywood movie "based on a true story". There's no way the true story was as neat as the story shown in the film, but the screenwriter has "tidied it up" to make it feel dramatic while (hopefully) keeping the key factual elements intact. That's exactly what I do in going from game to story.

Go right back to Chapter 1 of Strikeforce. The big fight at the Institute for Temporal Studies? Didn't happen quite like that. Oh, it happened mostly like that, but it wasn't as streamlined, it was more dragged out. Electron's player tried numerous futile tactics against Killervolt, for example, and I don't think there was a moment of epiphany when he and Avatar switched targets, he just won through a lucky dice roll. I took liberties to change the fight from a challenging game to an interesting story.

I am also writing scenes that never actually occurred during the game. In a gaming session, the only events we play out are the ones that players' characters directly interact with. So when Strikeforce chapter 9 opens with two pages of various villains and other non-player characters interacting in the ballroom of the Haley Hotel, none of that happened "in play". The gameplay started when Strikeforce heard of the raid and reacted to it. But in my plan for the game, I had the villains doing those things -- I had to plan their actions, even if the players wouldn't see those actions, because the players would see the results of those actions and it all needed to make sense for them. So I have all these extra non-game events documented because they are actually a vital part of the plot, and I am writing them out when I think they will make the story more clear or more interesting for the reader.

The other thing to bear in mind is that I'm writing Strikeforce chapters nearly 30 years after we played those game sessions. I have notes of what happened, but I didn't record what words the players put into the mouths of their characters (it would be an impossible task). Even if I had, players improvising dialogue on the spot will rarely come out with the sort of carefully-planned, polished prose that a novel needs to have.

So I am completely inventing the dialogue when I write the story now. But I'm inventing it based on years spent with those players and those characters. I know the characters so well, I know how they speak. The characters probably didn't say those specific words at those specific times, but they could have and probably should have. I am confident that everyone in my story is speaking "in character", as far as my writing skills allow. This also extends to characters' thoughts, which would almost never be expressed in a playing session but I can extrapolate from my knowledge of how a player portrays his character's personality and motivations. So where a character's thoughts would add to the story, I'll make them up.

So, that's it really. What you're reading is not a 100% accurate transcript of what actually happened in the game. You're reading a "dramatisation" based on a "true story". And I hope it's suitably entertaining. If it isn't, that's my failure as a writer, because I know the game sessions are entertaining. Well, if they weren't the players wouldn't have been coming back every week for 30 years.

Would they?

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Planning the Game

by David Meadows 30. September 2016 20:36

(Number 5 in an occasional series. See sidebar for others.)

I had a set of rules for a super-hero role-playing game: Golden Heroes. And I had a group of players I hoped would play a super-hero game. All I had to do was make a game that they would like playing.

The first thing you do with new rules is try them out by yourself before letting the players anywhere near them. Starting at the beginnng, you create a set of characters in exactly the same way that he players will have to.

I decided I needed a super-hero team of five characters. I created Gemini, Hammer, Image, Lotus and Littlejohn. (Observant readers will have noticed them name-checked in Strikeforce Chapter 2 as an in-joke to myself. Persistent readers will actually encounter them, eventually.) As I created each one, I gave them background stories, explained how and where they got their powers, and decided they would be police officers in the 24th century.

(One of the great things about Golden Heroes is that the rules actively required players to create a background, or in comic terms a "secret origin", for their characters, to explain where their powers came from. At the time, this was a pretty innovative concept in RPGs. And it's one of the key things I credit to the Game's longevity. Because when I told the players, "Now give your character a secret origin," they really put their imaginations to work, and gave me story ideas that I could run with for years. Much of the Game's story arose from the characters. Which is what stories are supposed to do, of course. But I'll get to that in time.)

I wanted a heavy SF flavour to my game, which is why I decided to set it in the future. And I didn't want the players' characters to be randomly thrown together. That works in a one-off game, but in a long-running game you start to look at this collection of mis-matched, type-A personalities who probably hate each other and ask, "Why are these guys even in the same room, let alone on the same team?" And the worse question, "Why are these characters doing this crazy thing the GM has placed in front of them?" The answer to both questions is often, "To make the game work," but that's a terrible answer. You need an answer that makes sense within the story, not just one that's convenient to make the game work. And unless your players are going to work together when they create their characters and build in their own relationships between the characters (never happens; even when they try, it doesn't work), the GM needs to impose a reason.

So, that was my reason: the characters are police officers. They're a team because that's their job.

So far, so good. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised I didn't want to set my game in the future. I wanted to start it in the future, but I would send the characters back in time and strand them there. Of course, I wouldn't tell them that. As far as they would know, I was running a futuristic game. I was sabotaging my stay-together-because-of-duty idea by moving the story to the past, but I hoped that it would be replaced by the mutual need to stay together because of the strangers-in-a-strange-land thing. Plus the sense of heroic duty would still be there because the characters would have been created as selfless police officers, so they would happily do the crazy things I placed in front of them.)

With that established, I had to create a number of threats for the characters to encounter in the 20th century. I had the "Warscout" concept as the reason for going back in time, but you need more than one threat. That's good for a single gaming session. What comes next?

So I created a team of villains: Neutron, The Dragon, Cosmos, Skyrider, Greywolf, Astra, Siren, Silver Streak, Hellfire. Each one had his or her own background, origin story, motivation, and personality. This was stuff that the players wouldn't necessarily ever find out, but I needed to know. Because if I don't know where a character comes from, how can I decide how he will act at any given point in a game session?

Now I had my second game storyline covered. But I needed more. I added in the Department of Intelligence and Counter-Espionage (pinched from an example game in the Golden Heroes rules) and spent some time working out how the organisation worked, where their secret headquarters was, who the key agents were, and so on. I needed other super-hero teams, to act as either friends or rivals to the players. The Defence League of America was a group I used to make up stories about as a child, so I dredged them out of my memory and worked out game statistics for them. I started to put together a history in which the DLA had been around for about five years, DICE had been set up to deal with the Anarchist threat at about the same time, and the world of 1987 was quite used to costumed heroes and villains running around.

It was enough to start. I understood enough about the world to answer any "What about...?" questions the players asked. The big short cut to this was that I was setting it in our own world, in our own time period. This gave me a huge advantage over running a pure science-fiction game. I didn't need to invent all the little trivial details such as how people cooked their dinner in this world, and the players didn't need to ask me. And of course that's exactly why I decided to time travel back to 1987 instead of setting the whole thing in the future.

But I still had a lot of inventing to do. To sustain a long game, I would need dozens of characters for the players to interact with. And I would need long-running, recurring plotlines. If an antagonist keeps coming back, or is a constant background worry, players get a lot more invested in how to overcome him. I had some ideas (the Warscout and the Anarchists were both intended to be long-term threats) but I was soon to get a lot more, and from an unexpected source: the players' characters, who would breath life into the game into ways I couldn't foresee.

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Golden Heroes

by David Meadows 11. September 2016 22:51

Number 4 in an intermittent series on how this thing came to be. (See the sidebar for the others.)

Role-playing games (RPGs) became a thing around the mid-70s. Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) was the first one published, rapidly followed by a horde of imitators. I first encountered them around 1980, and D&D was the first one I played.

As I explained in a previous post, an RPG has a "games master" (GM) who devises the world and the plotlines, and "players" who take the part of characters in that world and move through the plots the GM creates for them. I started as a "player", which is probably how everybody should start. But although I loved being a player, I knew that all the real creativity came from the GM, and that's what I wanted to be. But there was no point in me being the GM for D&D, when our group already had one who was very good at it, so I needed something different. Almost randomly, I bought a second-hand game called Traveller. Unlike D&D, which was about heroes going on quests to slay fantasy monsters (the clue is pretty much there in the name), Traveller was a science fiction game. Which was good, because science fiction was what I really loved.

In a lot of ways, the Traveller rules were ridiculously primitive: both overly-simplistic and overly-complex at the same time. And a lot of things in them didn't really make any sense. But as I've already discussed, the rules are the least part of an RPG; the world is everything. The trouble was, In the first game session I ran I hadn't really figured that out. So I had a simple plot that didn't make much sense, set on a planet that didn't have any thought behind it. And the players created "cardboard" characters with no thought behind them; no personality, no goals or motivations, just playing pieces to solve the GM's puzzle. It didn't really work, and I almost stopped being a GM right then. But I went away, and thought about it, and realised what an RPG really was. It was a story. And I was good at making up stories (I thought). So I needed to stop thinking about a game, and start thinking about how to tell a story that my players could be part of.

I went to them and said, "I want to run Traveller again. What kind of stuff do you want to do?"

"We want to hijack a starship and explore space in it. Like Blake's 7."

Huh.

Well, ok. That's my premise. Now write a story that satisfies that. I'll need a universe for them to explore... well, ok, a corner of the universe... a few planets... a political background... conflicts and potential conflicts... interesting things to discover in different corners of different planets... ok... I can do this...

Several hours of work and pages of background notes later, I got the players back together and we tried again.

We played that game weekly (in summer holidays, almost daily) for a couple of years. We pretty much stopped playing D&D. The players just kept asking for Traveller. And I kept making up new plots, and growing the universe more and more...

And something weird happened. Instead of mechanically plodding though my plot like it was a game of chess, the players had told me what they wanted to do within the game's world, and suddenly the world was as important to them as it was to me. They wanted to understand it. They wanted to work within it. And they did unexpected things that made me go away, re-evaluate my ideas, and come back with a better idea of what my world was like and how the players fitted into it. I had designed a world that would be there and make sense and keep working even if the players were not in it. But once they were in it, they affected the world. It reacted to them; it had to because they kept pushing at it. And they reacted to it in turn, as it pushed back at them, and their characters became more developed, well-rounded personalites, who felt like real people even as I tried to give them a real-feeling world to inhabit. It was still my world, but it was more than that. It was collaborative.

That's what all RPGs should be like, of course, and I know I'm not the only person to discover it. But from that point on I stopped creating "games" and started creating "worlds". Start with the world, and the plots for the games should become obvious, because you just have to look at what's happening in your world and ask, "How can the players interact with this?" I don't think I could run a game any other way now. I know some people play "one-off" games, short scenarios that don't need a detailed background, they stand alone, the players solve the puzzle, then they're over, finished. (Games designed to be run at conventions work like this, for example; they are never intended to continue for a second session, so why do you need a world beyond what the players will see in that one session?) And there's nothing wrong with that style of game, it's just that I don't think I could do that. With me, I need a world.

Over the next few years I ran several different games with various sets of rules. And always starting by creating a world.

And then some time in 1987, I saw this in a Games Workshop sale. The game that changed my life:

It was the first super-hero RPG I had seen, though I had known such things existed. And I loved super-heroes. I wasn't sure if I could convince my playing group to try such a game,  but Games Workshop were only asking £1.99 for it. I couldn't not buy it.

I bought it, and it was the most elegant set of RPG rules I had ever read. Even today, with rules generally more detailed and "sophisticated" than they were in the early days of the hobby, and even though I've bought and read dozens of sets of rules in all genres, I've never found anything with core mechanics that simulated the action of comic-book heroes as well as Golden Heroes does. I had to convince my players to try this.

But first, I had to create a world for my players to explore.

And that's another story...

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Who's Who

by David Meadows 10. June 2016 21:06

This week's update adds a new section: Who's Who in the Heroes Universe (as well as a new Strikeforce chapter and new history page; see the home page for all  the links). The new section will give complete biographies of all the characters featured in the Strikeforce and Heroes stories.

And immediately, there's an obvious problem with that idea: these characters' stories are still being told. I know how the stories end, but you don't. So if I write the biography of, say, Nightflyer, it's going to spoil all the main plots coming up in the Strikeforce story.

The only real way round this is to only give the biographies of the minor characters, the villains and bit-part players. Characters who probably won't appear in the story again, or if they do nothing will be spoiled by knowing their backgrounds. Except their backgrounds are often fairly scanty when they are just throw-away ideas meant to feature once, and particularly so for the characters created for the very early chapters of the story (before I realised it was here to stay and I started writing richer backgrounds).

That's why the section (currently) looks a bit pointless. What I've got at the moment is effectively just a template for how the biographies will look when I get to the more interesting characters. And I will get to more interesting characters. I just need to wait for when the time is right to introduce them. Bear with me.

 

This week's update was produced to a soundtrack of ABBA (singles and B-sides). Not that you really needed to know that...

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Suddenly, One Week Later ...

by David Meadows 3. June 2016 21:58

The site has been active for a week, and so far so good. Most of it worked (there was one broken link, but I think I fixed it before too many people noticed), and my server logs tell me that people really are looking at the site (though it's entirely possible that they all hate it and won't come back).

So here I am, miraculously keeping up with my commitment to add content every week. Not a huge amount this week: a new chapter of Heroes and a couple of essays about Atlantis, which will (at the moment) seem unrelated to either of the ongoing stories.

I've helpfully added links to the new content on the home page, so you don't have to go hunting all over the site for it.

I'm going to alternate chapters of the two stories, so next week you can expect chapter two of Strikeforce, with chapter three of Heroes the week after that. Realistically, I can't write two 6,000-word stories a week, so aiming to alternate them seems to be the best way to keep on track. I should also manage at least two essay-type articles a week, as I have this week. Plus a blog post, of course, which hopefully will be more interesting than this one has been. Friday seems like a good day for me to update (I never do anything on Friday nights, it's so sad...) so next update should be June 10th.

You can leave me comments below or e-mail me and tell me what I'm doing wrong, if you like. Otherwise I'll just assume you're one of the people who looked at the site and hated it...

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Welcome To The Heroes Universe

by David Meadows 27. May 2016 19:54

Did you follow a link straight to this blog without seeing the site first? Ok, you probably ought to at least look at the home page first, or you won't have a clue what I'm talking about here: www.dmheroes.co.uk.

This site has been a long time in coming.

The Heroes Universe started as a game, in the summer of 1987. Me and a group of friends playing out the adventures of a group of colourful heroes, inspired by the comics we were all reading at the time. I started it, I created the world background and the basic plot, and I thought it might keep us amused for a few weeks.

Three decades later, we're still playing it, and I have no idea how. My simple ideas just... grew... and grew...

I wasn't just running a game, I was writing stories. Whenever I introduced a new character to the game, I had to have a backstory. Half the time the players would never be aware of it, but I needed to write it. So I wrote, and I wrote, and...

This is what some of those three decades of writing looks like:

I have no idea how many pages or words that is. But it has grown amorphously into an unorganised mess. Many times over the years I have tried to put it into some kind of publishable format. Sometimes I've even succeeded (which is why parts of this site may be familiar to some people). But it has always defeated me in the end.

So this site is my new attempt, and this time I shall win. I am committed to eventually putting every bit of documentation (even the parts that only exist in my head) into a readable format, logically organised, cross-referenced, and available to anyone who wants to read it. And hopefully it will be interesting enough to make people want to read it.

But what is it? And why should you care?

It's a work of fiction. Simple as that. But I've tried to present different elements in different ways. Parts of it will be written in story form, parts of it will be pseudo-factual histories and character biographies, and parts might be whatever else I think up as an interesting way to document the universe. You can read the stories by themselves, but hopefully the supporting articles will be interesting in their own right.

As to why you should care... that depends entirely on my ability as a writer. I hope I can portray the characters and the universe they inhabit well enough that you will come to love them as much as I do.

And if it's not your cup of tea... that's fine. Thanks for giving me a chance and for reading this far.

I'll keep writing this stuff even if I'm the only one reading it. After all, that's what I've been doing for the last three decades.

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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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