Tag Archives: role-playing games

RPG

We are, if you can believe it, going to take this blog into even dorkier territory this week. A little while ago I started RPG-ing again. Role-playing games are a hobby I enjoyed a lot in high school and university, but in more recent years there hasn’t been time to do it. I tried playing over internet forums but it really wasn’t at all the same and I had sort of assumed my RPG days were over.

However, some friends of mine suggested giving it a shot again (we’re using voice chat, which removes a lot of obstacles) and so I am once again running a game of Star Wars: The Role-playing Game. The specific game doesn’t really matter so much; the experience has been an interesting one from a writing perspective.

As the game master (or whatever a particular game labels the role I have), it’s my job to create the scenarios the other players will encounter, populate the game world with interesting characters, and give them compelling enemies to fight against and (hopefully) overcome. There’s more to it than that, but I guess obviously this all sounds a lot like writing fiction, and it is, in a lot of ways.

However, as I was also reminded (I feel like much-younger me would have known this) that there are some big differences as well. For our first scenario I created a whole bunch of stuff that, to me, would have been an interesting, reasonably suspenseful story to start out the new game. I made up characters and created detailed backgrounds and motivations for them all. I carefully thought out the right sequence of events for the scenario’s plot and what the hooks for the next story would be.

And then we played. And (as any experienced GMs will of course already be expecting) the players went off in entirely different direction skirting most of what I had plotted out. Most of those characters never got met, and the bulk of the plotline got (actually fairly skilfully) avoided. I thought the game went fine, but I had to make up a fair bit on the fly (an essential GMing skill at the best of times) and a lot of material i had prepped went unused. (By the way, to my players who may be reading this, please don’t take this as a complaint – I’m just thinking things through.)

You can avoid this – RPG players call it ‘railroading’ and you can write things such that the players have to go in the direction you want them to. (i.e., you set things up so the game runs ‘on rails’ with no real ability for the players to steer where they might want to go) Especially for newer players it’s sometimes the thing to do, and some players are fine with being told where to head next, but my experience has been that more experienced players tend to chafe against it pretty quickly. The whole attraction of an RPG is that you get to explore an imaginary world of wide-open possibility. Hey, what’s that? Let’s go check out over there.

So to some degree this is unavoidable, especially if you have creative players (which are the kind you want). What this is reminding me is that writing as a game-master is a very different jam than writing as a fiction author, despite those superficial similarities, primarily because I’m not the only person telling the story. Because I can’t necessarily predict what the players are going to do, improvisation is always going to be a part of it, but just as obviously I can’t prepare nothing … somewhere there’s a sweet spot of preparing enough material to be able to have the session go smoothly without working up a bunch of stuff that never gets used to find again.

(And, honestly, a lot of stuff that doesn’t get used when I expect it do can be scavenged for parts later anyway)

I like to hope that what I’ve learned as a fiction writer does help me in creating compelling elements for the RPG, but I also feel like this whole experience gives me some useful stuff to think about and take back to fiction writing. Although I do get to tell the whole story there, there’s also still a balance to be struck in terms of how much background and fleshing out everything needs for the story to be convincing and interesting. Fictional worlds need to seem plausible and fully-realized, but that (in my opinion) should also be an illusion; you can waste a lot of time on ‘world building’ that serves no purpose to the story and, in some examples of writing I’ve seen, actually gets in its way. Write the story first, decide if you actually need a detailed political history of the kingdom later.

I know that part of why I have always liked role-playing games is the storytelling element. I love to tell stories and that’s essentially what the games are about, whether you’re a player or the game-master. What I’m re-learning again the last while is that it is a very different kind of storytelling than I get to do when I’m writing my own fiction, and while the lack of control is something that requires adjustment, it’s also really cool because the group is working together to tell the story rather than it being the creation of any one person. I also think that while I’m probably a much better writer than I was when I was last running an RPG, that doesn’t necessarily or immediately translate to being a better game-master.

I’m not really sure that’s something you get in any other setting than a role-playing game group, where creative people collaborate in real time on a story that can (depending on the group, and the game) go on for years. I think what I’m actually re-learning as a game-master is that it isn’t my story at all. My job is to help the players tell the story of their characters, the imaginary people they’ve created and are sending out on adventures. It’s very cool and it is a role I enjoy very much, I’ve just got to get good at it again.

That’s all very much just me thinking out loud about things, but it’s what I’ve got for you this week.

Thanks for reading.

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Rogue One

So once again I am one of the last sentient creatures roaming the planet to have seen a movie – in this case, Rogue One, and I am once again undeterred in writing a blog about it. Perhaps needless to say, this post is riddled with Rogue One spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the movie, the short, unspoilery version is that I liked it.

Go see it and read on after you have. I was ever-so-slightly spoiled going in, and I think it affected things, and wish I could know how I would have reacted without knowing what I knew. Anyway.

Here’s what I thought:

<this is a gap, past which stuff containing spoilers begins to appear>

<here endeth the gap>

I watched the first ‘act’ of the movie with deep misgivings. It seemed, at first, as we met characters and visited some places and saw the first threads of the plot begin to weave, that this was going to be A Very 2016 Star Wars. By which I mean one in which there would be no-one who was really very good, and we would watch one group of (partly new) essentially reprehensible characters throw down with another (mostly familiar) group of reprehensible characters and be left with the ‘shades of grey’ that seem to be very popular currently.

As I’ve said in earlier blog entries, I do understand why grim and bleak stories are popular, and I sometimes enjoy them myself (although, it is true, not so much these days). However, as I also said in my blog about The Force Awakens, one of the things I like about Star Wars is that there are generally good guys and bad guys and conflict ensues. So a ‘shades of grey’ Star Wars felt unpalatable, even as it also looked very pretty and a lot of the actors’ performances were very good.

Fortunately (for me, anyway) the whole movie pivoted in a moment, when Jyn Erso made her speech to the cowed and demoralized Rebel Alliance. She would fight even when the battle seemed impossible, because evil is evil and it has to be opposed. “You give way to an enemy with this much power, and you condemn the galaxy to an eternity of submission. The time to fight is now.” That’s a really good line, and a really good sentiment.

Up to that point the movie had really been (perhaps – I’m getting back to this) looking for a Good Guy, and suddenly it had one in Jyn, who will fight even when she might not win because the fight just that important. Because giving up in the face of oppression is unthinkable. You do everything you can, because that’s what the cause calls for. Right there, she became the movie’s Luke Skywalker or Rey, and the rest of the ‘Rogue One’ team almost naturally falls into place around her. Suddenly, for me, it was Star Wars again.

(Brief aside: It was a bit of surprise that it worked out that way because in the trailers it had seemed as though Jyn was perhaps going to be the difficult, morally-grey one who had to be talked around to the Rebel cause. I’m not sure how much of that reflects the much-ballyhooed reshoot, but her ‘this is a rebellion, I rebel’ line got cut and I love the character we got)

In fact, I’d argue she’s perhaps the most inspirational Star Wars protagonist we’ve had to this point, because she’s the one who most clearly articulates why it is important for her to fight. Luke never talks about his motives, really, and perhaps that’s Destiny at work – this is just who he’s been born to be. We understand Han Solo’s change of heart, but he never says why he did it, not honestly. Rey and Finn end up joining the Rebels and although it’s fairly clear as to why, they don’t talk about it. Leia is a leader who never (that we see) has to convince people to follow her. Perhaps that speaks to the strength of her leadership, but Jyn’s second big speech, to the ‘Rogue One’ troops in the shuttle, was pretty damned impressive too.

Ok, so obviously I like Jyn Erso, but she’s not actually my favorite character from the movie. I have two.

One is Chirrut Imwe, who the film insists isn’t a Jedi but I insist is wrong about that. His blithe faith in the Force and stoic acceptance of everything that happens around him is pretty damn cool. The bit where he takes out a turbolaser tower by shooting down a TIE fighter at juuuuuuust the right moment is also pretty damn cool. As befits a Jedi, he has more moral insight into the characters than we get anywhere else, and his faith in Captain Andor is gradually proved right, in spades. So I like that guy a lot. I don’t really understand Taoism, although I’ve explored it some, but I deeply appreciate and respect the philosophy and the attitude it cultivates, and Imwe encapsulates a lot of it. So he’s a character that I guess I would like to be like.

My other favourite, though, is Bodhi Rook. This guy isn’t a fighter at all, he’s a shuttle pilot, essentially a ‘truck driver’, as Riz Ahmed pointed out in an interview that was playing as I entered the theatre. He’s an essentially very ordinary guy who is persuaded to do one right thing by Galen Erso, and although that leads to him being tortured by the people he was trying to help, and thrown into desperate danger, he doesn’t waver, he shoulders the burden he’s been given, and agrees to do everything he can. He started out not being a guy who is in the fight at all and he ends up sacrificing his life. That’s about as heroic as it gets, because he’s not a strong-with-the-force instrument of destiny, a slick pilot with a quick gun hand, or a powerful politician. He’s a truck driver. He never backs down. Great character.

So I really did enjoy Rogue One quite a lot, although I think it still sits a little uneasily in the Star Wars universe, in part for having some of the darker characters we’ve yet seen (Andor is an assassin, albeit one with a redemption arc, and Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera is a more ruthless Rebel than we’ve yet seen) and in part for its quite grim ending (which was the bit I was spoiled on – I knew ‘it didn’t have a happy ending’). I’m not sure that it would really be a very good idea to take kids to this movie and have them watch every character that we have any reason to get invested in get mowed down in the last ‘act’, or have one of the very last scenes be Darth Vader brutally murdering a corridor full of essentially helpless Rebel soldiers. The sacrifice is deeply heroic, and the film does a great job of making you believe that it is necessary, but it’s still a bloodbath of Shakespearean proportions by the end. That’s not what we’ve been used to from Star Wars, although Rogue One had me sufficiently hooked that I was on board with the grimness of how things unfold.

I should (or at least will) also say that a lot of the movie – the bunch of not-A List characters struggling to still do something great, the frustrations that weren’t entirely their fault, and the grand, spectacular disaster it all turned into – reminded me of the days when I ran a Star Wars role-playing game campaign. Except in our games the heroes found a way to get out alive, in the end, which still seems more Star Wars to me, even if it isn’t a very realistic portrayal of war, or a rebellion.  I should maybe write more about this, sometime.

I think, in the end, that Rogue One may have ended up a very 2016 take on Star Wars after all, but not the one that I was worried about when Andor murdered one of his contacts and the Rebel general ordered both the Ersos to be killed. It didn’t end up a shades-of-grey story, but it did end up one with a message that may be important at a time that many people are finding frightening and demoralizing. When evil seems to be winning, that is the time that it is most important to stand up and fight. To do what you can, to oppose it every way you can. Because the cause is important. And it is.

Rogue One was, perhaps, the least-optimistic perspective on the Star Wars universe that we’ve ever gotten, but I still found it a very good one, and I agree with those who have said that the next time I see the trench run scene from A New Hope (and there will be a next time), it will be more impactful that it has ever been before, because that moment is what Jyn and Chirrut and Bodhi and everyone else who went along on that stolen shuttle gave their lives for. The victory is possible because they made it possible, even if someone else gets the medals.

That’s more than enough words about this movie than anyone is likely to have wanted to read, but those are my thoughts. If you’d like to continue the conversation, hit me up with some comments.

I, uh, didn’t like the droid that much.

—–

I calculate this is the last blog entry for this year, barring something unanticipated that demands an extra entry. I am not (this time) going to make some ruminatory post about the passing of time or what have you, except to note that 2016 has been a year full of fun along with bad times, disappointments along with wonders, heartbreak along with very good times indeed.

So it was a year, like any other.

Thank you for sharing it with me, and as ever, I thank you for reading

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