The Rick Rocket Conundrum

by David Meadows 12. September 2017 19:45

It's all my own fault. But I don't know how to fix it.

Let me start at the beginning. 

Rick Rocket appeared very early in the Strikeforce story (off the top of my head, I think you'll read about him in chapter 30 or 40), in a small role in his real identity of Hugh Howard, then an old man. After helping him, Strikeforce learned he was a retired super-hero. Not just any super-hero, but Rick Rocket, America's first super-powered masked hero, appearing in the late 1930s and becoming the greatest hero of World War 2.

He cropped up a few more times in the game, and despite his minor role I had a full background and history worked out for him.

So, my series of historical games reached the 1930, the era of "pulp" heroes, and of course I had to include Rick Rocket somehow.

I decided this game would be his "origin" story, and the players would (unwittingly) be there at the birth of America's greatest legend. This would only be a minor part of the game -- as the focus of the plot has to be on the players' characters, not a supporting character -- but I thought I could still make it work and make it fun for the players who remembered the character's introduction nearly 30 years ago (our time).

Then I made a silly decision: I made Hugh Howard a coward.

This will be great, I thought. Subvert the players' expectations, make him not the hero everyone expects, and actually make them, the players, the people who push him down the path to heroism.

It's dramatically satisfying on so many levels. I'm a genius.

Except ...

It went a bit wrong. We've now finished the 1930s game, and Hugh Howard is still a coward who has no intention of putting on a costume and fighting crime.

Continuity is unravelling around me.

I'm sure I can fix it.

I have to fix it.

I'm just not really sure how ...

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Pre-Planning

by David Meadows 17. August 2017 19:42

We interrupt your scheduled blog to answer a question a reader asked in response to my last few posts. I would probably have covered all this eventually (and might repeat bits of it in future posts), but this is a good excuse to write something about it now. (Let’s be honest, I’m just excited to find I have a reader.)

“I am interested to know how much you preplan? Do you have a range of set pieces that will happen? Do you have a defined ending and work toward that? Is it a mixture of both?”

It’s a mixture of both.

I always have an ending to work towards, because I treat the game like a story, and a story needs an ending and resolution.

I have set pieces (which I define as “a key scene that must take place in the game”) worked out, but I’m fully aware that half of them won’t take place because the players will either screw up and miss them, or be brilliant and bypass them. So it turns out that some key scenes aren’t as key as I thought they were, and I actually have to have multiple redundant key scenes ready to run, just in case. The level of detail I put into each one varies, though, and some are simply minor variations on each other. And, crucially, you have to be fluid and adjust the scene on the fly depending on the exact play that leads up to it. No planned encounter survives contact with the enemy players.

The other thing I do is make the plot non-player-character ("NPC") driven. This probably works best in long campaigns, but it works in a short scenario, too. If you know what your chief baddie is doing and why, you can write the “story” of how he wins without the players getting in the way. Then when the players do get in the way, you still know what he’s aiming for so you put yourself in his mind and think, “That went wrong, what do I do next?” And the future story adjusts accordingly. You don’t need to be prepared in advance with everything he might do, though you do need to understand him and his goals well enough to be able to quickly plot his next moves on the fly (or, worst case, end the session early so you can get ready for next week).

But there are other ways of doing it -- in our early days of playing D&D, it was enough to have a huge dungeon complex full of encounters, with no goal other than killing monsters for fun and treasure. A game with a goal as simple as “The king wants these monsters cleared out and as a reward you can keep whatever treasure you find” is still a game (though not a particularly good story). To be honest I would probably suggest that approach for any beginning GM (especially one who comes from board gaming -- or wargaming, as I did), as it’s all set pieces that are simple to prepare in themselves and will work in any order. You don’t have to worry about keeping the narrative straight, remembering anyone’s motivations, or panicking when the players go the wrong way; you can just have fun hacking up monsters while learning how to play “in character”.

 

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Complete blank...

by David Meadows 24. April 2017 22:29

Trying to write down events that happened 30 year ago is hard. I'm half way through describing a battle with the demon that kidnapped Avatar (that was in Strikeforce #17, in case you didn't read it) and I suddenly have no idea how Strikeforce won. This demon is so powerful, I know that everything they tried against it must have failed. I know they did win (sorry, spoiler!) but can't remember how.

Normally when this happens, I just make up something that's dramatically satisfying and produces the right outcome.

Except in this case, he's so powerful, I can't think of anything that's going to produce a believable victory.

It's not exactly "writer's block" (I don't think that actually exists, it's a myth put about by lazy writers) but it is an annoying problem...

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Avatar

by David Meadows 17. April 2017 22:40

When did Avatar become the most important character in the Game? It's hard to say for sure, but it started in Strikeforce chapter 17, coming this Friday. My ideas of how my universe (its cosmology) worked started to crystallise then.

I thought I was running a basically science fiction Game, but that went wrong right from the start when one player decided to play a demon.

It was trying to reconcile that choice, and fit demons into my (I thought) rational universe, that gave me the key over-arching plotline that ran through the whole Game.

I'm not going to give it away now. And chapter 17 won't really explain anything either. But it's where the explanation starts. Don't miss it!

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Research

by David Meadows 14. April 2017 18:14

I've got more bothered about getting historical and geographic details right recently. Because the Game is set in what's more-or-less our real world, I've always used real places and historical events as background, but as long as the details were vaguely right then I wasn't too bothered about absolute accuracy. As the Game progressed, I took more care over getting things right -- possibly because the players were getting better at pointing out errors ("But the Luger wasn't in use in 1907" "Oh...").

This has led to some retroactive headaches. I've been editing the bios of Carl and Carla Zod, ready to upload in a future site update, and finding all kinds of errors that I presumably didn't know or care about 30 years ago but now are really bugging me.

Such as, why is Carl Zod teaching at University of California San Francisco? When I introduced Zod in the fifth Game session (or Strikeforce chapter 5), I set the story in San Francisco completely at random. So when writing Zod's background, I placed him at UCSF.

The problem is (I know now): it's a medical school. Not the obvious place to find one of the world's foremost theoretical physicists.

I'm not going to re-write history (i.e. the details played out in the scenario 30 years ago and chronicled in chapter 5 last year) to have Strikeforce meet him at his home in Los Angeles. I'm stuck with San Francisco. But I'm tweaking his background so it makes a bit more sense in the "real" world.

It probably wouldn't bother anyone else if it was wrong. But things like that have started to bother me...

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Diversity

by David Meadows 13. April 2017 21:56

There's a big fuss in the media at the moment about diversity in Marvel comics. Apparently, Marvel editors believe that people aren't buying Marvel comics because we don't like the "diverse" (non-straight-white-male) casts they've introduced.

As a life-long Marvel reader who no longer reads them, let me set the record straight: I didn't stop buying their comics because they introduced black, female, or gay characters. I stopped reading them because they were consistently publishing bad comics. I'm talking about having storylines that were impossible to follow, making beloved characters act completely out of character, and randomly cancelling and restarting titles just to make it as hard as possibly to know what to buy. I stopped buying Marvel comics because their editors no longer knew how to put out good comics, not because they had gay heroes. Every lapsed Marvel reader I've spoken to has said the same.

Soooo....... how does my universe score on diversity? Probably pretty poorly. It was simply never a consideration when I started the Game. So the vast majority of characters are straight, white males. In later years I (and I think my players too, though we never discussed it) put more thought into having a greater variety of character backgrounds. So I think you'll find the Heroes cast more diverse than the Strikeforce cast. But the mix of main characters still isn't anywhere near representative of modern America.

I could retroactively make half the supporting cast black, but that would be the very epitome of "tokenism", making a change just so I could say I've done it, and I don't think it serves any useful purpose.

So I'm sorry, I've got a mostly non-diverse cast, and I'm stuck with it. It's just how it is.

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Don

by David Meadows 9. April 2017 10:14

Don wasn't supposed to be an important character. When I introduced the DICE organisation to the Game, the main and only important character was supposed to be Major Eastwood, its leader (a thinly disguised Nick Fury, as I'm sure everybody figured out). But I needed other agents, so Don started as a generic background extra, and then got a name probably around the time Scorpio saved his life

He could still have faded into the background, but now he had a reason to be remembered. Scorpio had saved his life, so there was a bond there, and when I needed more DICE agents to appear in a plot it just made sense to say it was Don. So now he needed a personality, and a background, and a skill set beyond being "generic secret agent #1".

Huey, Dewey and Luey were quickly added to DICE because Don needed a team and, well, I love names that are puns and/or have meta-textual meaning. Ed ("the duck") Mallard was also an inevitable addition by this point.

Don was never a major character, because the Game had to be exclusively about Strikeforce, and he didn't really appear very often, but his appearances were remembered. 

When I ended Strikeforce and moved the story "twenty years later", the main characters would be young super-humans on the run. I needed an older mentor for them, someone who could lead them into the stories I wanted to tell. From the moment I concieved the idea, there could only be one choice: Don.

When we started that next phase of the Game, I introduced Don and the players accepted it with a smile, because they knew it was exactly right. As players they knew and trusted Don, and so it made it easy for them to believe that their characters would trust and follow him. It wasn't something forced on them to make the story work, it was something that made sense within the world and felt right.

In the Strikeforce story, I introduced Don by name earlier than I did in the Game, and I gave him and his squad larger supporting roles. Whenever I've needed a generic DICE agent, I've made it Don or one of his team. Because it probably was, except I hadn't given them names at that point. And because I knew Scorpio had to be with Don at a certain point in order to save his life and for them to become friends, so why not begin the association a little sooner? I think it works.

Don went from un-named to cardboard character to trusted friend to key participant to one of my favourite characters over years of play, and I like to think it all grew organically. I hope it looks that way from the outside. But you've still got lots of his story to read ...

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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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We're back!

by David Meadows 5. January 2017 15:10

Coming tomorrow in Heroes #14: the girls go shopping!

 

PAGE FIVE. Five panels.

Panel 1

Daylight. A city. Specifically, the exterior of a shopping mall. If it's not obvious what it is, we can include a sign: "QUEENSTOWN MALL". (Name unimportant -- just something to set the scene.)

CAPTION (voice-over, continuing SPY's thought):

"Where are teenage runaways likely to go?"

VOICE (from inside mall):

This is absolutely perfect!

CAPTION:

Winnipeg, Canada.

Panel 2

Inside the mall. It's a female-clothing store. SARA is wearing a big, sky-blue coat trimmed with white fur -- just the thing for the Canadian winter. (It's fake fur, of course. I know there's no way to convey this point on a comic panel, I just thought I ought to mention it.) She's examining the coat in a full-length mirror. CHI-YUN sits on a nearby chair, looking bored.

SARA:

What do you think, Chi-Yun?

CHI-YUN:

Sara, your power lets you find anything you need. Why does shopping take so long?

Panel 3

SARA turns an exasperated look on CHI-YUN.

SARA:

You just don't get it, do you?

CHI-YUN (softly):

No.

Panel 4

SARA is sorting through a rack of clothing.

SARA:

Just try something on!

CHI-YUN:

I don't need clothes. My skin can look like whatever I want.

Panel 5

SARA holds out a horribly cute pink jacket with flowers or hearts or something.

SARA:

Don't you get cold?

CHI-YUN:

Never.

CHI-YUN:

And I'm never going to wear that.

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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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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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