RPG Design Journal #1: Ideas & Themes

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There are many places one can begin when building a world for a game, sometimes you can even start many places at once. Some designers may build around a theme, others begin with a map, characters, or historical period of interest. When I find something that interests me – something I feel would be worth exploring in a game – I usually make a note of it somewhere, in a notebook or online. This way, when I begin working on a new setting, I can look at the various topics, ideas, characters, and sources I’ve already compiled beforehand to see what pieces fit together to build an interesting world.

Often I find that other DMs (or writers in general) try and avoid directly taking inspiration from other works. I do not recommend this approach. You’ll likely end up being frustrated, and I guarantee most of your decisions will have some resemblance to another work whether you want them to or not. Remember: originality does not exist, ideas are not born from nothing. The best artists are those that can steal from other artists without being caught. Take something you enjoy and then make it your own – that’s true innovation.

For this world I drew upon a myriad of sources to come up with the ideas I want to explore. One of the first elements I knew I wanted to include was “monster migration.” While flipping through the 5th edition DMG one of the tables of example adventure ideas suggested having the adventurers deal with a herd of monsters migrating into a populated area. In most of the games I’ve played monsters are usually encountered as solitary creatures, maybe with a few humanoid handlers. The concept of a monster migration – a world where people knew that dangerous creatures would come and go seasonally – was very interesting to me.

Building upon this idea, we must consider where these monsters come from and where they go. In order to keep things limited and easier to handle I decided that the monster’s should emerge from an uncivilized area – a huge forest in this case – down into inhabited valleys. This way there is a clear source for monsters (the forest), an element of mystery (the forest is an unknown), and, therefore, the possibility for adventure.

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The Roosevelt-Rondon Expedition could serve as a potential source from real-life to develop the forest for the monsters.

So we know that this is a world with an unexplored wilderness, and we know that monsters are a seasonal problem. Let’s take a look at the inhabited regions then. These are people who know that they live in danger constantly, so they will probably have some sort of organized force to fight monsters. This could be something to explore for modifying or making new classes and prestige classes. Since monsters are a big deal I really want to play up how dangerous they are, I’m thinking this world should be very dark and mysterious. The worlds, creatures, and styles of Bloodborne, Dishonored, and Ravenloft can serve as other sources of tone and information. To make the monsters more dangerous and mysterious we’ll make their numbers very large – every year more of them emerge – and they’re imbued with keen intelligence and purpose. The cities in the inhabited regions have to spend the safe seasons saving up food, resources, and men to withstand a siege of monsters. The inhabitants are probably very superstitious and wary of outsiders – they fear lycanthropes, shapeshifters, changelings, and undead that can pass as human. They see such creatures as “sleeper agents” that weaken them from the inside.

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The Pandyssian Continent from Dishonored is dangerous and unexplored – a perfect stepping stone to build off of.

So we have an obvious external conflict set up – monsters against people – and internal conflicts – people turning against their own out of fear. This society might also have a cultural conflict: modern science vs. folklore. We’ll put this third aside for when we begin to deal with technology and magic.

How does this society manage to survive and grow in the face of such opposition? Its facing constant opposition from outside, and its afraid and culturally suppressed inside. I’m going to say that this land is a colony for a much larger and more powerful Empire. These local states and cities can get extra resources and support from their homeland, but are also out of touch and technologically inferior. This sets up another nice conflict – the possibility of revolution and independence. Some colonies are probably more independent than others, some need the Empire’s support to get by, others don’t. This is our third conflict: colony vs. empire.

So let’s take another look at what we have:

  1. There is an inhabited region with cities and an unexplored forest.
  2. Monsters migrate back and forth between the two in cycles.
  3. The cities are in a constant struggle to survive the siege of monsters.
  4. The fear of these people has made them bitter, xenophobic, and superstitious.
  5. This land is a colony for a larger empire.
  6. Some parts of the colony desire independence, other parts are fiercely loyal to the empire. Some are divided.

This is a good skeleton to begin building off of. These ideas will change, and many other parts are sure to be added, but we have enough to begin designing a world with. As we continue we’ll begin making a map, thinking about the types of monsters in the forest, discussing race and species, and start working on a major city for the players to explore.

 

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The Revenant: Artistry and Subtlety

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I’ve just returned home from watching The Revenant, a film as rough and gruesome as its hero’s face. It’s a heavy film, weighed down by its subject matter, its setting, and the way it tells its story. This isn’t to say that it’s bad – its an incredible film, and one that I enjoyed – but there’s a lot in it that I just can’t form an opinion about.

Before getting all negative I’m going to talk about what the film does well. First off, the camerawork is superb. Director Alejandro Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki are very fond of the “big take” and their mastery of the technique shows. Many of the most hectic scenes – a raid by Native Americans, an attack by a grizzly bear, a hand-to-hand duel with knife and tomahawk – are displayed with incredible detail, utilizing beauty and brutality in a cinematic dance. The static shots are also vivid, utilizing the North American landscape with amazing effect. All the performances are good – and some are great. Tom Hardy is ferocious as the traitorous and greedy Fitzgerald, but his performance takes a backseat to DiCaprio’s tortured, abused, and determined Hugh Glass. From a technical standpoint the film is a marvel.

Now for the … other part. Simply put, this film is not subtle. The visual symbols and motifs are so bold as to be bloated. The soundtrack, though fitting for the movie, is constantly thundering throughout the film, sometimes to the movie’s detriment. More than once I found myself thinking “this scene would be a lot more emotional without the emotional music.” Yet, for all the grandeur of the movie, I can’t seem to find out what its trying to say. Yes, we are supposed to sympathize with the Native Americans, but their pain at the hands of white settlers is shown through the eyes of a white settler, a sympathetic white settler, but a white settler nonetheless. Crow, Glass’s Native American son, has seen is mother killed, his village burned, and travels with white trappers who hate him. Yet his rage is expressed through Glass. There’s a scene where an Arikara chief lists the atrocities by settlers to French traders. Its all true, but it feels like the film puts in this scene to simply say “this is a movie that deals with these issues!” rather than, well, dealing with the issues.

One could make the argument that the film isn’t about  the native-settlers conflicts, or about racism, and sure you could say that the film’s main theme is about revenge. Glass is betrayed, his son is killed, he’s left for dead, and he sets out for revenge. Okay. But even with this interpretation I can’t really figure out what The Revenant is trying to say. Is revenge good? Is it bad? Is it futile? Are the natives supposed to highlight the consequences of revenge? Is the bear attack a metaphor for the damage of generational conflict? The movie doesn’t really bother to say. It just waves its arms and screams about brutality and revenge and suffering.

Again, this isn’t meant to undermine the many successes of the picture – its certainly a movie that makes me think. But maybe if it had spent more time making it clear what it means to say, rather than being as loud as it can, I would be able to take a little more away with me.

RPG Design Journal #0: Lore, Myth, and Worldbuilding

I’ve wanted to do a post about the inclusion of “lore” in storytelling – mainly, but not exclusively, in games – but I haven’t been able to come up with any sort of point to make. I know a lot of these posts are just me rambling on with little rhyme or reason about things that interest me or tick me off, but I honestly couldn’t find anything to say about lore development. For a while I though it might just be that I didn’t have any real experience in developing lore, after all I’m not a professional game designer. Then I realized – I develop lore all the time!

I’ve played D&D since I was about 10 years old, often fulfilling the role of Dungeon Master. The groups I’ve played with very rarely used pre-made campaigns and adventures, so it usually fell to me to make up a new game world for them to interact with – and that means making lore as well.

Considering this, I thought that maybe it would be nice to look at this topic from a hands-on perspective. For the last year I’ve been developing a new game world, one that’s significantly larger (well, its actually geographically smaller, so … “deeper” may be a better word…) than my previous creations. So as I continually develop it I’m going to post about it and discuss my process of development specifically looking at the development of the world history, mythology, and (of course) lore.

A few disclaimers:

  1. This game world does rely primarily on the d20 system released under the 3.5 Open Gaming License by Wizards of the Coast. It also utilizes materials released by Paizo for Pathfinder and White Wolf Publishing’s Swords and Sorcery also released under the d20 system.
  2. This game world is something I’m making primarily for myself as an exercise. It is not being developed for commercial purposes.
  3. It is not my intention to infringe on anyone’s intellectual property with these posts.

Now, I’d also like to point out that I’m not an expert when it comes to game design. There may be things I do in my development process that aren’t the best decisions, but that’s one of the reasons to put this out here. This is also a chance for me to reexamine the kinds of choices I’m making in my own designs.

This was a pretty boring post, but I hope others will find the process of worldbuilding interesting.

That’s all for now.

Thanks for reading,

-PH

The Responsibilities of the Writer

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Have an open-source picture of typebars because it looks neat.

Perhaps I’m delusional, but I feel like a lot of people seem to criticize works using the term or idea of “responsibility” to justify their opinions. Specifically they claim that writers (or any artist for that matter) has some responsibility to make their work appealing to the viewer/reader/etc. I cannot bring myself to agree with this statement.

We live in an age where the author is dead. The opinions of the writer are only considered  another part of text (if they are considered at all)  with which to interpret the work. By claiming that the author has some responsibility to the reader, we assume that the author will have a direct say in what their text must mean. I have no problems with an author having an opinion in their own work – or them even having an intended message in their work – but a text must be interpreted based upon its own merits as a work. If the opinions and intended message of the author can be seen in the text, then by all means they may be considered just as legitimate an interpretation as one proposed by a literary critic. But when a reader is able to demand that a text contain or remove certain elements for the sake of their own interpretation or sensibilities we begin to walk a very dangerous path, because while such claims seem to favor the reader they actually strip away the legitimacy of our concerns and interpretations.

If we say that an author must have this thematic element or can never display this kind of character, because it is deemed irresponsible to otherwise give a work to an audience, then we begin to impose an arbitrary scale of what makes “good literature.” We strip away the reader’s ability to justify their own opinions of the work. We create a shield for the author, and a cage for the reader. When we say “this text does not meet my personal criteria of ‘good'” we are overshadowed by the industrial criteria of “what is good.” The nuances of the story, the style, and the symbolism present in a text are washed away by the brush of “responsibility.” Indeed, some may argue that we overpower the nature of language and narrative itself in this interpretation. Limiting the potential for play in language to escape from a false “truth.”

If an author should be responsible for anything, it is conveying the story (and I mean this for nonfiction as well) that they are trying to tell. This is not to say all stories that an author chooses to pursue will be good or well-told. Perhaps a writer will settle for a story that is too intricate for their own abilities, or too simple for their style. A writer may choose a story that is outdated, or a story that is simply bad. In the end though, it is up to us – the readers – to say what we like or don’t like. If we find a story to be offensive, or the structure and style of a writer to be insulting, then we should make it clear that we will not partake in such materials. We cannot demand that all creations prescribe to the same opinions, and the same methods, we may merely refuse to reward works that we personally object to.

We are readers. We judge based upon the action of reading. We read what we want to read, and ignore what we don’t want to read.

Reading does not a writer make.

And the reader is not the writer’s responsibility.

 

The World of Tom Waits

If I had to choose one musician who has influenced me the most as a listener, as a musician, and as a person, it would be Tom Waits. I first learned about the wandering madman of a musician about three years ago, but it wasn’t until the beginning of this year that I really managed to sink my teeth into his repertoire. Any fan of Tom Waits can tell you that a major part of the man’s appeal is the persona that is intertwined with his music – whether that be the lonesome barfly, the heartbroken traveler, the shady salesman, or a madman locked in some kind of dream, Tom Waits has always had a persona, specifically the persona of an outsider.

The more one listens to Tom’s music the more a kind of mythology begins to emerge, characters fade in and out of the fog, seedy dens and mysterious carnivals become more familiar, both inside and outside the music. Fan favorites like Frank, the Eyeball Kid, and Singapore are the first to stand out in Tom’s rogues gallery, but even unnamed characters and locations – ones that have no indication of returning – will find a way to sneak back into the songs. The moan of the singer in “That Feel” from Bone Machine might return in the inebriated chanting of “Goodnight Irene” on Orphans (which, being a cover, makes me think of the original recorder Lead Belly).  The themes in “Day After Tomorrow,” “Road to Peace,” and “Hell Broke Luce” form a shared landscape of war, one that I can’t help but image the characters share – at different times and at different places, perhaps, but share nonetheless.

The more Tom records, the more his work seems to connect back to itself, forming an intricate web of characters, locations, and motifs. Digging through his music one can find Jack Kerouac, Edward Mordake, Wonderland, William S. Burroughs, Frank Zappa, Faulkner, The Ramones, numerous back alleys, bars, and cafes, and maybe Hell itself. Digesting the mindscape of  Waits’s music is like reading Ulysses – there’s always more to be discovered, and Tom’s Persona is always at the center of things when you get lost. Across the various mediums that Tom has worked in – music, stage, screen, and page – he always brings an element of that strange madness he carries within him. Sure, Tom didn’t direct Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but that doesn’t mean that his portrayal of Renfield isn’t as much a part of Tom’s world as, say, Falling James, or even Martha herself. Similarly, the music for The Black Rider, Woyzeck, and Alice were composed for Robert Wilson’s shows (and were all inspired from other sources at that), but they are still Tom Waits music – no wonder he released his own recordings of them!

This universe of Tom – branching across history, mediums, and even into other artist’s work – is, in its own way, a sort of transmedia narrative, or perhaps a collection of them. At the center of it all is that element of the Outside, carried by Tom himself, and we are only allowed access to his world bit-by-bit, song-by-song, tour-by-tour, interview-by-interview. We may never fully map out the geography of Tom’s World, but then again, would we really want to? I certainly hope not, and I look forward to the next tantalizing morsel of shadowy streets and bourbon-soaked heroes to devour.

Media Tally 2015

As the end of the year approaches I have kept a list of the media I have consumed (for the first time) this year. Note that not all entries must have been produced or released this year (as the majority are not), rather they are merely the items I remember reading/hearing/seeing (etc.) and stuck with me enough to put down here.
MOVIES
– What we do in the shadows
– Dark City
– Limelight
– Citizen Kane
– Port of Shadows
– October: Ten Days That Shook the World
– Aag
– The Lumiere FIlms
– eXistenZ
– M
– The Last Laugh
– The Game
– Mad Max: Fury Road
– Star Wars: The Force Awakens
– The End of the Tour
– Mr. Holmes
– The Martian
– Adaptation
– 20,000 Days On Earth
– The Zero Theorem
– Bronson
– Such Hawks, Such Hounds
– Seven Samurai
– Burroughs the Movie
– The General
MUSIC
– The Color Before the Sun
– Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise
– The Book of Souls
– Purple
– Ugly Casanova
– Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (and numerous other songs by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds)
– Survival Sounds
– Deites
– The Passion of Joan of Arc
– Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812
– Attitude City
– Tom Waits
– The Last of Our Kind
– Jonsi
– Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
– History of Forgotten Things
GAMES
– Batman:  Arkham Asylum
– Batman: Arkham City
– Undertale
– LISA: The Painful RPG
– Kentucky Route Zero (Acts I-III)
– Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist
– Dust: An Elysian Tale
– Metro: Last Light Redux
– Psychonauts
– The Witcher
– Dishonored (and DLC)
– Deus Ex
– System Shock 2
– Total War: SHOGUN 2
– S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl
– Star wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy
– Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War
– Duck Game
– Tomb Raider (2013)
– Flower
– Journey
– Betrayal at the House on the Hill
– Keep talking and Nobody Explodes
BOOKS/WRITINGS
– Ulysses
– The Fifty Year Sword
– Sophie’s World
– The Confusion
– The Beelzebub Sonata
– Ways of Seeing
– A Questionable Shape
– Dawn
– Barton Fink (Screenplay)
– Blood Simple (Screenplay)
– How to Do Things With Video Games
– Numerous short stories by Thomas Ligotti
COMICS
– The Dark Knight Returns
TV
– Boardwalk Empire (Seasons 1-3)
– Man in the High Castle
– Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell