Writing is hard

by David Meadows 15. March 2020 01:42

Today's game was emotionally hard for me to run. When I plotted the current storyline some months ago, I knew I had to play out one scene that, well, every time I rehearsed the dialogue to myself I just broke down.

I'm not sure if people who don't play RPGs realise how attached you can get to a character.

One of the very first characters I created for the original Strikeforce game was Astra. Originally a villain, then as I developed her background I realised she worked better as a hero, and eventually she joined Strikeforce and grew into a better person than I ever could have planned for. Grew from a timid and unsure teenage girl coerced into crime, into a strong, confident, and capable woman.

Maybe it sounds stupid to talk like this about a fictional character--particularly one that I had created myself--but I was so proud of her. And I guess I loved her, as much as you can love a fictional character.

The current phase of the game is set in 1975, it's a prequel story set 12 years before the original Strikeforce story. 

So the current crop of player-run heroes are gathered at Wang's shop in San Francisco's Chinatown, in 1975, to discuss their plan to take down the local crime boss (which is the main plot of the current game). The characters don't know Wang, even though the players do. Wang is a minor character in the Strikeforce story, and I hope the players think that I've introduced the younger version of him here to tell his background story as an "easter egg" for the players, irrelevant to the actual plot. But I'm not telling Wang's story. I'm telling Astra's.

Wang sells cheap souvenirs to American tourists. There are three of them in the shop right now, a young couple and their four-year-old daughter. While the player-characters watch (but don't intervene, because it's nothing to do with their plot, it's just a side scene I'm playing out for the players' benefit), the girl asks her father to buy her a colourful paper lantern for $5. Her father tells her it's over-priced rubbish and refuses. The girl is upset.

And then Wang, who I've spent the last couple of weeks establishing as a short-tempered, self-absorbed, money-grabbing con-man, inexplicably kneels down and hands the girl a lantern. And says--

--and this is the dialogue that kills me, and you won't understand it unless you know the history of Strikeforce, and Wang, and especially Astra, and I think I hold it together so my friends don't notice, I *think* I say it without my voice cracking--

"For you, little girl, it will never cost five dollars."

And Astra leaves the shop with her parents, and minutes later there's huge smashing noise outside, and the heroes rush out to find both parents dead in a car crash.

I've just orphaned my favourite character.

Because that's already part of her history, it was established when I first introduced her all those years ago. But knowing it has happened is different to describing it happening.

It's so different.

It's so hard.

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by David Meadows 18. February 2018 22:19

Don't read this until you read chapter 21 of Strikeforce!

Read it? Ok, carry on.

Sometimes in a game, something that you didn't think was a big deal turns into something (excuse the pun) major. (You'll get the pun as you continue reading.)

Fury was a prime example. I had a plot that called for Skyrider to defect from the Anarchists and join DICE. To make this into an interesting game scenario, I needed some villains to chase him so Strikeforce could fight them off. I quickly came up with three new villains, and put in some minimal work to give them backgrounds and personality. Fury was one of them. Somebody born with weather-control powers. Why was she an Anarchist? Er, she had a wild childhood, was serving a jail sentence, and was recruited in that way. There, that's more than enough background for a minor villain I'll probably only use once.

From that humble start, Fury became one of the pivotal characters in the entire game. Not from what she did in the scenario she appeared in, but from what Major Democracy did next.

The player who created "Scorpio" was never entirely happy with the character, and put considerable effort into transforming him into something new: "Major Democracy". Gone was the super-spy with some random powers and a lethal weapon, to be replaced by a living symbol of justice and freedom, carrying a symbolic (and practical) shield and making inspirational (or bombastic, depending on your point of view) speeches at every opportunity. It's a change that, to honest, made little sense within the game's narrative (though I've tried to retroactively rationalise it in the story). It was done just because the player was bored and wanted to play something different.

And then, completely out of the blue, the player said, "I want to visit those villains we just captured."

Uh... why?

"Because I think I should try to make them go straight."

And for me, personally, I think that was the point where the way I viewed the game changed. Major Democracy wasn't just a bored player messing around, it was a player with a fixed idea of what he wanted to do within my universe. This was actually important to him. It was as if he really cared about this world I'd created, and wanted to make a difference in it.

This put a responsibility on me: Major Democracy had to succeed. First, because the player deserved it, but secondly because I needed Major Democracy in my game. Again, I can't explain it, but I just felt something about this character was important. (A feeling that was born out in unexpected ways over the years.)

So, quick thinking-on-my-feet time: at least one Anarchist had to "go straight" in response to the Major's plea. I had to think through the likely reactions of three characters with minimal personalities, and find one that could realistically be swayed. From what I had already decided, obviously Greywolf wouldn't listen. Tracker could, but it felt wrong to me. But Fury...

Fury had to became a hero. Because of Major Democracy. So she did. 

She appeared on very few subsequent occasions--maybe half a dozen. But I made sure she did appear, and was obviously and clearly a hero. The player knew he had succeeded. No, more importantly than that, Major Democracy knew he had succeeded, and so Major Democracy carried on as one of the moral cores of the team.

So, for surprising (I'm sure any of my players reading this are surprised) and improbable reasons, I've always counted the obscure, barely-featured Fury as one of the key foundations of the game. 

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Preparing a game

by David Meadows 14. January 2017 13:37

Last week I was blindsided by the players voting to return to a segment of the Game I had never expected to re-visit -- the "Crusades" era we played about three years ago. I could remember the premise and the direction I wanted the plot to go, but I was very vague on details. So pretty much everything else this week was put on hold while I desperately tried to cram everything I needed to know.

First, I re-read the game rules, something called Chronica Feudalis:

It's 120 pages long, but I only needed to read the parts that were actually rule mechanics, so I could skip all the preamble and background material.

The main reason I thought we would never play this again is that I know the players hated the rules, but I'm not actually sure why. I think they have a really innovative and clever mechanism, and I actually remember them being very quick and streamlined in play. Oh well...

Next I read my notes from when I originally planned the game. In the process I discovered a lot of things I'd forgotten I had, such as this interesting map of Nicaea:

And the Game calendar:

I knew that to make the game work (because it was left with the characters split up and, honestly, in a hopeless position), I would need to move events on, narrate where the charatcers are "now", and pick up a new plot direction. 

But to do this would mean advancing the game calendar beyond what I had originally planned. So ... more planning. Back to my original reference texts, Runciman's A History of the Crusades

and Frankopan's The First Crusade

Thankfully not the whole books, just the chapters dealing with events around Nicaea in 1096/1097, as I'd decided to pick up with the characters stuck in the besieged city. This meant advancing to April/May 1097, a longer gap than I wanted but I can cope:

I already have the characters worked out (both player and non-player), and I have the non-player motivations worked out so I have a goal and a way to drag in the characters, so that's it really, the rest of the plot writes itself. 

Preparation finished early, with plenty of time to write this blog and have lunch before the game.

I'm pretty sure I haven't forgotten anything...

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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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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."


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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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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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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