Friday, April 23, 2010

Burning Limitations

In a recent (sorry, friendslocked) post, a friend of mine wrote about her limits as a roleplayer: the things she never wants to have happen to her characters or in her games, no questions asked. Her limits, quite reasonably, include:

  1. Having a PC raped.
  2. Having a PC tortured, explicitly, on-screen.
  3. Having the PC's actions lead to a child's death (when the child is someone narratively important and personified - she has no problem with her PC's committing genocide or xenocide, for example, when the populations she wipes out only include children in the abstract).
  4. Explicit sexual content.

That's just the blacklist. She also has a list of things she wants used only with extreme consideration, such as her character becoming pregnant.

I find all of this eminently reasonable. It's good and important to know where your limits are in game. Otherwise, you're sure to discover them at a bad moment, such as the middle of a session when something happens and suddenly you're somewhere between retching and feeling like maybe not coming back next week.

Now, the weird thing is, my limits work very differently. No matter how I look at them, they all come down to the same central principle:

Let me play the game I signed on for.

Don't take away the power, situation, or setting element that makes my character cool. Don't impose new powers, situations, or setting elements on him until the game's style twists away from what I'm interested in. Don't traumatize him until he isn't the person I made anymore. Don't kill off the NPCs I want h
im to interact with. Don't kill him.

That said, you can do any of those things with my permission. Having my character change and grow is part of what I signed on for, after all. Change my character's powers if it adds to his story, traumatize him if it forces him to develop, kill of NPCs whose deaths will force him to grow, kill him if it puts a suitably dramatic cap on his narrative, just make sure I'm ok with it. Rape, torture, infanticide... I have a hard time imagining many characters whose stories would be enhanced by events this extreme, but they aren't off the table for me.

Lest this seem like a fake limit, I want to be clear - I am a real control freak about this. If you take away the game I signed on for, I will be unhappy about it, I will let you know, and I will expect you to do something about it. My limits are just as firm as others, they just lie in what I've come to see as a kind of odd place. I suppose it's because I'm a writer and I approach game as a writer. My character is my story, and while I'm ok with my character's story being dynamic, as good roleplaying must be, there's a point where I stop having fun.

I have my limits.

What are yours?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Headline: Ashpocalypse

Europe becomes the Final Empire. Waistcoats and pocketwatches come back into style as ash falls from the sky. American fantasy author Brandon Sanderson declines to comment. Will an immortal emperor rise from Iceland to declare himself the Lord Ruler of all the Earth? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, if you're reading this from airport wireless somewhere in Europe, you have my sympathies.

And if you're in the mood, I have a creative prompt to help you pass the time...

Write me something topical, something relevant; write me the ashpocalypse! The comments button is yours.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Matt Memorial Mmmm... Blog

On Thursday, March 25th, my friend Matthew Brown passed away unexpectedly. He was 25 years old. As far as anyone can tell, a lifetime of diabetes other chronic conditions finally caught up with him.

I'm about as ok about it as anyone can be. Matt's friends and family have drawn together remarkably well, given the circumstances. Matt had a funeral for his family - I couldn't attend because it was at the same time as Passover - and also a geek-themed memorial for his friends, most of him knew him as a player, GM, and World of Warcraft denizen.

Matt and I didn't have exactly the same tastes in game. Matt had a wider hack-and-slash, beer-and-pretzels streak than I do (I am a filthy narrativist). However, the man knew how to run a good game, and I'd like to devote today's post to a few of the things Matt taught me that I want to remember.

  • Everyone is a Star: Matt had an ability to make everyone at the table feel like their character was the star of the show. His Changeling: the Dreaming chronicle, Dreams of Rebirth, featured an incredibly varied cast of characters. We had a frighteningly bitter Unseelie Baron, his lovestruck pooka spymistress, a traumatized scout, a timelost sorceress, and the most vicious 12 year old terrorist you ever met. Somehow, each and every one of us would describe the game as "my game"; in truth, it was our game. I believe that Matt did this by combining careful preparation (as the Abigail has noted, "he remembered things about my character's backstory that I had forgotten"), a feeling for his fellow players that can only be summed up as love, and quick wits. It made for a stellar gaming experience, and it's something to emulate.
  • There is No Drama: "Do not try to prevent the drama - that's impossible. Instead, try to remember the truth: there is no drama, only people." Drama didn't happen in Matt's gaming groups. People had issues, and people - led by Matt's love and patience - solved them. I wish I'd known how to do that in college.
  • Always Room for One More: I've alluded to this before, but Matt was a kind, giving, accepting, and most importantly, inclusive person. I can be a real snob sometimes, but Matt wasn't. As far as I could tell, you liked what you liked - you played the way you played - and whether or not Matt wanted to play with you, that was still just fine.

In closing, I want to share this: at Matt's memorial, we divided up his spoils - his gaming books, his games, his toys - so that they would go to homes with people who would enjoy them in good health for years to come. I was conflicted about it at first, but it was what Matt's family wanted, and in the end, I think it was a good idea. I'm not ashamed to say that I ended up going home with a lot of stuff that I am going to enjoy, and every time I do, I'm going to think about Matt. Every time I struggle to live up to my best - to his best - I'm going to remember him.

Anyway, among the things Matt gave me are everything I need to start playing D&D 4th Edition.

I've been wanting a low-pressure beer-and-pretzels game for a while now.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Plus Or Minus a Few Zeppelins

I just finished reading Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn: The Final Empire and am happily embedded in chapter one of Mistborn: The Well of Ascension. It's spring break - one of the appealing things about being a teacher in my other life - so I get to read. I have nothing but good things to say about Sanderson: he has a neat and distinctive narrative voice, excellent craft, a really well-made website (the dude knows how to accessorize), and a firm grasp of the finer points of world building. It's that last that I'd like to talk about today (expect a full fledged Burning Zeppelin review to come later).

After reading Mistborn: The Final Empire I have created a model of worldbuilding for fantasy novels. Within this model, the creation of a setting's magic can be summed up as either subtractive or additive. They probably each have their merits, but I've also come to realize that I far prefer additive magic.

It works like this. For subtractive magic world building, assume that magic exists and can do anything. Then, begin making subtractions and limitations. This kind of magic is hard to do, that kind of magic requires a costly sacrifice, only this nation knows how to do the other kind, and a this and that are impossible, and so on. If you keep it up long enough, you eventually have a pretty good magic system for your setting, full of (carefully limited) possibility. Some books and games that seem to have used this method include the White Wolf canon, especially Mage (both iterations), and, well, most every fantasy novel ever written.

For example, in Steven Brust's Dragaera, you can return the dead to full and normal life, but it's pricey, only has a one-in-three chance of working, and doesn't work if the corpse is more than three days dead. Other kinds of magic are similar: you can basically do whatever you want, but some things are harder than others.

Unsurprisingly, additive magic is the opposite: instead, you start with the assumption that magic doesn't do anything - that it doesn't exist - and add capabilities one at a time. Examples of this approach are fewer and further between than the more popular subtractive approach.

I'm willing to grant that the subtractive approach has its strengths. It's much easier to create a sense of infinite possibilities if the possibilities really are (nearly) infinite. If you want magic to seem a vast and incomprehensible mystery that your characters will only scratch the surface of, subtractive magic is the way to go.

However, the additive approach has several notable strengths as well: it tends to produce magic systems that are tighter, more easily understood, and easier to handle narratively. Most importantly, additive magic is often more thematic than subtractive magic because the entire system can more easily be designed with a single thought in mind.

Case in point: Sanderson's magic in the Mistborn trilogy. There are two competing forms of magic: Allomancy and Feruchemy, each of them well defined and (I imagine, anyway) best described through the additive approach. Both kinds of magic are dependent upon metal (Allomancers swallow it, Feruchemists wear it) which adds scarcity-driven tension to the novels' general grittiness; if an Allomancer runs out of metals or someone makes off with a Feruchemist's metal bracelets, the magician is out of luck. Both forms of magic are dependent upon which metals the magician uses, which provides a nifty pacing guide. As the story progresses and the characters learn more about their world, they discover more metals and use them to do things they thought were impossible before. In the end, however, there are only so many metals, and so many capabilities the characters can tap.

Finally - and now I'm speaking from Sanderson's own notes to the series rather than pulling stuff out of my butt - because most Allomancers can only use one metal, the initial group of characters are easily brought together because of their disparate specialties. In addition to being an interesting way of tying characters of vastly (and hilariously) different personalities into the same story, it also adds to the "magical heist film" feel Sanderson was going for. Like the international criminals of Ocean's 11 or The Italian Job, each of Sanderson's thieves has their own specialty, and only by working together can they achieve their goals.

A brief disclaimer: I have no idea how Sanderson actually writes. If he deigns to visit my humble zeppelin, I'd be tickled pink. If he actually comments and lets me know, I'd probably be tickled purple. You know, deeper than pink.

Right, then. Anyhow... let's bring it all home: how have I interacted with this model of world building?

I'm sad to say that until now I have mostly used the subtractive method out of sheer habit, even in some stories which - in retrospect - might have benefited from the additive method. For example, in Knights of the Land (the current working title of the rewrite of what was once A Knight of the Land - more on that in a later post) all magic involves tapping into the living earth. Some people, like the titular Knights, do it organically as part of their role as the land's protectors, while other forces, like the Mountain-Killing Crown, rip power out of the earth in a way that's bad for everyone. However, despite the fact that all magic has a unified source, I haven't done much to give all magic a unified feel. Knights can use the power of the land to enhance their bodies, heal, and divine. Land-draining machines can unnaturally extend your life, make you invulnerable, throw fire at people, make your fields fertile (at the expense of your neighbors') and blow up mountains... and that's just the relics I mention in the novel. There's no indication that the relics are limited. I have to do some serious digging and decide if I want to apply my new insight... or let sleeping novels lie. On the one hand, it's a pretty big change to make so late in the process, but on the other hand, I am in the middle of a rewrite...

However, I have been fascinated by the additive approach for longer than I've given it a name. I've mostly expressed this through "Setting Riff" posts, but now I'm wondering if I shouldn't go back through some of those posts and see which might have story potential. The one where I flip our society's ideas of "male" and "female" magic to create a world where only men can heal and divine and only women can throw fireballs and such is probably still a branch of subtractive magic, since I'm still limiting infinity, but what about the world where all magic is illusion? That might, as they say, have legs...

Anyway, I recommend that you all check out Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy, because they're awesome, and that way you'll have more comments to make when I finally do get around to posting a review. And you should all also think about the possibilities of additive and subtractive approaches to magic. I'll post some food for thought below.

* * *

  • Where have you read what you now think was probably subtractive magic? This will likely be a long list.
  • Where else have you read what you now think was probably additive magic?
  • What do you think I should do with Knights of the Land?