Role Playing Games: Gaming and Story telling.

I enjoy role playing games for the mental challenge, for the puzzles, the satisfaction of overcoming obstacles, the creative utilization of resources. I don’t play for the story telling. I appreciate that other people derive pleasure partly – or even entirely – from the interactive story telling aspect. Fair enough. It would be a dull world if everyone viewed it exactly as I do. Some excellent books have grown from such games. But for me the enjoyment lies in the game play rather than in the amateur theatrics. (I don’t use the expression in any derogatory sense; I think it is an accurate description of the style of dialogue and dialect employed by gamers – whether an actor by trade or not – committed to the active role playing of a character.) I can get into character when circumstances indicate I should, I just do so as a means to an end rather than for its own sake. I’m interested in completing the challenge, triumphing over the next encounter, leveling up. If I need to pretend I’m actually conversing with some savage, demi-human chieftain in order to achieve the current goal then so be it. But I do so to achieve the goal, not to become a participant in a narrative.

I prefer story telling as a unidirectional activity; either creating or experiencing. While playing a game I’m not greatly interested in helping steer someone else’s story (or being trapped on the rails of someone else’s story, unerringly directed toward a set conclusion.) And if I’m running the game instead of playing I may strew it with plot-like elements but with no intention of shoe-horning player characters into the role of Characters performing functions essential to the narration of my story.

Stories I prefer to get from stories. Not to say that fiction doesn’t influence my gaming (my sadly infrequent gaming.) I may base my PC upon a fictional character or throw in elements of a story I’ve just read in into the adventure I’ve sketched (and boy are my RPG adventures sketchy.)

Of course if a story happens to grow organically by the culmination of the adventure who am I to complain?

Do you play games as a means of group story telling?

Memorial Day

It is that time of year when Americans commemorate those who fell in the service of their country. That, at least, is the reason for the holiday. In practice, for any number of reasons few actually engage the day as intended. The holiday is more associated with backyard barbecues than with memorializing those who died in uniform.

I’m not casting any aspersions. It’s just an observation, not a condemnation. And I’m not about to chuck the first stone. I’ve not visited grave sites or watched parades. You’ll find me at the grill with a beer in my hand.

I do not come from a military family. My grandfather was a medic in WWII. On D-Day he was laid up with dysentery When he tried to join his platoon, his captain told him “Go back to bed, Lizzi.” So he did not storm the beaches of Normandy. It’s hardly a romantic concept, but my existence could well be attributed to dysentery How’s that for an ennobling thought?

My dad was a conscientious objector and had a student deferral. So he wasn’t drafted. An uncle, by marriage, served during the Vietnam era, but he was stationed in Korea. A medic. Another uncle, also by marriage and also a medic, did serve in Vietnam. He shared some interesting stories.

My sister served. Met my brother in law that way. I joined up as well, though my military career was hardly illustrious. My “There I was” stories are hardly the heroic stuff of legends.

The point is, I have only a passing acquaintance with the ultimate sacrifice. My appreciation for those who lost their lives in war is mostly abstract. The deaths are at a ‘friend of a friend’ remove. I don’t have a direct family connection that allows me to feel the sacrifice viscerally.

But I’ll try.

And I’ll try to keep in mind those still serving.  With that in mind: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGClrsAN2aY

Choices

The wife and I watched “This is 40” the other night. I’m glad we’ve several years of marriage under our belts, a solid relationship, and an appreciation of coarse humor. I wonder if anyone saw that on a first or second date. If so, was there a follow up date or did the flick provide too much fodder for speculation and second-guessing?

Picking the right movie for the occasion is more art than science. I can’t claim I’ve made the right call across the board. I once took a first date to a Sick and Twisted Animation Festival. What the hell was I thinking?

Choice is a mixed blessing, though the mix is overwhelmingly weighted positive. I remember a s a kid getting dropped off at the mall with a ten-dollar bill in my wallet. I’d head straight to the Walden’s or the B. Dalton’s and browse the science-fiction and fantasy paperbacks, searching for the title and cover that most captured my imagination. $2.75 or $2.95 would leave me with enough for a meal at the food court and a few bucks in quarters for the arcade. Choices and more choices, all of the good.

I find that selecting a new book to read now requires more consideration than it used to. My reading time is more constrained by the demands of life, and I am more aware now of the finite limits of my existence. The moments spent reading one book can never be recovered, selecting one book has eliminated another somewhere down the chronological road.

That makes book reviews important. Even more valuable, I think, is knowing the sort of think you like. Know what authors appeal to you. What general type of story pushes your particular buttons. A blurb indicating that author A writes in a style reminiscent of author B can help. A recommendation from a favored author can help. Check out the book store’s Staff Picks.

There are no guarantees but you can try to stack the odds in your favor.

I know that I have in the past advocated reading widely. I hold to that. I don’t see a contradiction. A well-rounded interior life provides plenty of room for multiple interests and preferences. You can read widely AND choose wisely.

Consolation – you can always learn from your mistakes.

Exploration

Our cat has been feeling her oats recently, testing boundaries. I’ve received numerous, somewhat distraught calls from my wife over the last few weeks informing me of the cat’s current escapades. Leaped from the deck into the yard. Scrambled up on the roof and refused to come down.

She’s exploring, seeing what lies beyond her usual confines. I can understand that. There can be a great deal of comfort in the familiar. Enjoyment, even. Familiar is not synonymous with dull. You have your usual because you like it.

But sometimes you want to step beyond the bounds of the familiar, see what is out there, same as the cat does.

Speculative fiction speaks to that. It opens up vistas far from the ordinary. That is part of the appeal of fantastic literature. But even the extraordinary can become commonplace given enough exposure. Science fiction and fantasy can grow stale, overly familiar and that can drive the urge to explore something new.

It is important, I think, to read widely. Do not confine yourself to a single genre. Pick up a mystery novel, a historical account, a biography. Hop down from the deck and have a sniff around at the wider world. It works for the cat.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard – Science Fiction’s Greatest Villain

The captain of the Enterprise D, Jean-Luc Picard. James T. Kirk’s antithesis. A scholar, a diplomat, a man of culture.

And the perpetrator of monstrous crimes. Ming the Merciless, Darth Vader – pikers. Their villainy amounts to little more than a string of misdemeanors compared to the enormity of Captain Picard’s genocidal activities.

Count 1. Picard is a mass murderer on a galactic scale. After the Enterprise captured a lone Borg drone, Star Fleet had the opportunity to introduce a virus that would wipe out the Borg menace. Picard – on his own authority, without consulting with his superiors – ordered otherwise. The Borg subsequently murdered billions of sentients. Thats the big number with a ‘B.’ Billions. Picard would claim he couldn’t have expected that. A laughably weak defense. The Borg actions were eminently foreseeable. Picard’s failure to introduce the virus was reckless, negligent. All of those fictional billions deaths can be laid at his feet.

Count 2. Picard is also a prospective murderer on a vast scale. In the rather forgettable “Trek’”outing “Insurrection” the good captain was faced with an ethical dilemma that shouldn’t have stumped even a frosh philosophy major for more than five minutes. A colony of 600 or so were squatting on the secret of immortality. Star Fleet wanted to relocate them. Picard made the determination that the potential health and longevity of untold numbers of humans were trumped by a rather recent land claim of 600 people. Get that – he made the decision. Were I a Federation citizen facing my looming mortality I think I might be a bit irked that I wasn’t consulted, that Captain Picard personally eliminated the option of my continued existence. Thanks ever so much.

Verdict: Guilty on both counts.

Disagree? Go ahead and lay into me for impugning the good captain. And let’s face it, he could be a pretty cool character and Patrick Stewart was terrific in the role.

Steven Brust – An Appreciation

Steven Brust – An Appreciation

Steven Brust is one of the three masters of the first person smart-ass style. One of the other two, Glen Cook, was a prior subject of a Web Log appreciation. The third is the late, and lamented, Roger Zelazny.

Brust has written a substantial body of work, but is primarily known for his Dragaera novels. These primarily concern the exploits of Vlad Taltos, a human living amid an elaborately imagined civilization of elf analogues – the Dragaera, tall, immensely long-lived creatures. Other novels deal with certain of the Dragaera themselves. In these novels Brust – rather brilliantly – indulges himself by emulating Alexander Dumas’ “Three Musketeers” literary style, complete with flamboyant oaths and and humorously labyrinthine conversations.

Vlad Taltos is his crowing achievement. An assassin, an organized crime sub-boss, a witch, and a narrator delivering his own story with droll wit. Occasionally Brust explores different styles, employing other points of view to deliver Vlad’s tale. These books – for example “Athyra” – tend to suffer in comparison, lacking some of the spark of Vlad’s tongue-in-cheek delivery.

Another criticism: Brust is unabashed about sharing his political opinions. On occasion – notably “Teckla” – these views can be so intrusive as to dominate the narrative. If one – myself for example – is disinclined to be charitable to a Trotskyite viewpoint, then such heavy-handedness can diminish enjoyment of the book. Thankfully the politics are usually camouflaged well enough not to disrupt the reading experience – there if you looking for it, nigh invisible if you are not, or if you make an effort to ignore it.

With Vlad Taltos, Brust has created a seminal character in fantastic literature. Vlad is worthy of entry to the pantheon of such great scoff-laws as the Gray Mouser, Elric, and Conan, glorious rogues all.

Sadly the publisher, Tor, is no longer releasing the books in mass market paperback. This necessitates that I purchase each new volume in trade paperback. The full chronicle, when finally complete, will doubtless be an aesthetic triumph as a literary work, but it won’t fill a seamless, symmetrically pleasing stretch on my shelf.

It is possible that I demand too much.

Writing What You Know When You Are Just Inventing It

Received writing wisdom has it “write what you know.” Well, what if you are writing about three-limbed aliens or magical elves? How are you supposed to possess concrete, factual information about something fictitious? Assuming you are not simply adopting some other writer’s creation, how can you write what you know when you’re inventing it as you go?

Short answer? Write what you know around the elements created out of whole cloth. Your novel magical system has no existence outside the bounds of your imagination, but perhaps the characters employing it are based firmly on personality types you know only too well. Or the political structure of your secondary world is lifted directly from a term paper you wrote for your poli-sci course. Or the Space Legion’s battle tactics are exactly those you were taught in infantry school.

The shiny facade of your fiction may be something fundamentally unknowable, but the supports, the foundations, the unseen infrastructure holding the whole edifice together, making it read as plausible – these you should be familiar with. Inclusion of matters you have a comfortable working knowledge of will lend your story a sense of grounded verisimilitude that will encompass the fantastical elements as well.

Technobabble

The thing to bear in mind is that it is science FICTION. If you were describing actual scientific advances you’d be an inventor and the world would be a truly fabulous place, complete with jet packs, flying cars, and anti-matter engines. Or a smoldering cinder, slowing cooling in the deep freeze of space. Depending. The aim, therefor, is not viability but verisimilitude. Not necessarily plausibility, though that’s a bonus. Your gadgets need to pass without raising an eyebrow within the context of the world you’ve created, not of this one.

Technical jargon, or technical sounding jargon, is the primary tool in your verisimilitude chest. Engage in a bit of research, absorb the language of scientific journals. But keep the research wide rather than deep. It is easy to drown in the topic you’re investigating. You forget the aim – verisimilitude – and begin to despair because your essential piece of sci-fi hardware – the hook upon which your story hangs – appears implausible. Take a step back, breathe. Remember the goal. Look, if we science fiction consumers were that insistent upon rigid, peer-reviewed science backing the fiction then the shelves would be empty and television would consist of nothing but police procedurals and reality programming.

So learn your technobabble. And set the stage for your plot-necessary tech with throwaway descriptions of other context-appropriate future gadgetry. If such other wonders are commonplace then this key breakthrough shouldn’t threaten suspension of disbelief.

Tara

Tara

I visited Tara on a quiet March morning. I spotted a shepherd across the fence in an adjoining pasture. I met a local woman walking her dogs. But as near as I could tell I was the only visitor on the hill. I had the mounds mostly to myself. The expanse of damp, spongy turf with a generous leavening of sheep droppings was devoid of tourists – well, of other tourists. It is easier to trigger the imagination in solitude. I could step freely through time, at least the sort of fictional time envisioned by those of us who read fantasy as voraciously as history. Over here I could see Cuchulainn, salmon leaping over the halls that now rose to top the mounds. Over there, stepping through centuries in only a few strides, I saw Saint Patrick giving a snake what for. It is my imagination: there is no shame in my picturing him with a pint of Guinness in one hand. I watched the crowning of Brian Boru. And then I moseyed back down the hill to my rental car, trying to retain the sense of temporal displacement I’d imposed upon myself.

I find travel especially rewarding when I can achieve those fleeting moments of vivid imagination. It can be difficult in crowds, trying to see the Roman Forum bustling with Senators and lectors when it is in fact bustling with two thousand tourists gabbling twenty different languages. But just a glimpse – an overlay comprised of all the ephemera accumulated in the memory: movie images, old encyclopedia illustrations, book cover paintings, the pictures conjured up from reading evocative passages – factual or fictional – can make the whole trip worthwhile. Consider the rest of the trip lagniappe.

Glen Cook – An Appreciation

Glen Cook – An Appreciation

Glen Cook’s footprints are all over the speculative fiction landscape. And they are large footprints. For readers he is a proven draw For writers he is enormously influential. Consider current heavyweights like Steve Erikson and Joe Abercrombie. What would their work resemble without “The Black Company?”

My reading would certainly have been impoverished without “The Black Company.” I remember “The Silver Spike” occupying my time while waiting at Fort Bragg for deployment on a brief training exercise in Honduras. And “Dreams of Steel” was one of many books keeping me entertained while sweating through months in Haiti. Cook is a writer who truly seems to grasp military service and soldiers.

And let’s not forget the ongoing case files of Garrett, Tunfaire’s premiere investigator and troubleshooter, reluctant knight in tarnished armor. Part Archie Goodwin, part Travis McGee, with bits of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade grafted on. Garrett is the closest thing to a fictional hero I can profess. It will be a poorer world once Cook ceases chronicling Garrett’s adventures.

Mention of two series barely scratches the surface of the layers Cook has added to the fantasy and science fiction landscape. Do yourself a favor, if you haven’t already, and explore that landscape personally.

If you have read him what is your favorite Glen Cook work?