The Balance Between Story-telling and World-building

I’m coming to realize that I have a difficult time with combining world-building and story-telling. Whether it’s in my game or in my personal writing, I find myself failing to successfully fuse the two.

In the case of Cirsova, I’ve done a lot of world building, but never figured out a Narrative to put there to the point where there is no story other than the implication of a decaying empire obsessing over a dead empire.

In the case of the game I’m running, I feel like I have a story to tell of a wicked king who intends to reclaim his kingdom from beyond the grave, but, in part because of borrowed setting, my world-building feels sparse and lacking.

It helps, though, to know that I’m not entirely alone, and even some of my favorite authors have had the same problem. I just finished reading the first novel in LeGuin’s Hainish cycle, Rocannon’s World. The worldbuilding (a 4 mooned backwoods planet in the intergalactic federation is inhabited by warrior humans riding flying cats, telepathic cave-dwelling troglodites, their above-ground cousins, and giant insect-men) is great. The story (an ethnologist’s expedition is destroyed by bad-guys wanting to use the planet as a badguy base, so he and his native friends must find the badguy base so they can get the federation to drop a bomb on it) is kind of meh. Still, it’s an enjoyable book.

Seeing that even my favorite authors sometimes struggle with fusing story and world-building, if anything, makes me feel less alone.

Another Jeffro Retrospective

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but it needs to be said again and attention drawn to it. Some of the most important Appendix N analysis going on today is being done by Jeffro over at Castalia House publishing.

With a new edition out and the game some 40 years out from its humble origins, this work is almost that of a literary archaeologist. So removed we are from the game’s textual origins, we may have forgotten why the game is the way it is.

Whether you’re curious about the books that shaped gaming or looking to step your game up when it comes to world building or just getting a better idea behind the whys of certain aspects of the game, you’re bound to find answers in his writings.

Yet Another Library Sale

The recent Library sale has once again lengthened my seemingly endless list of books to read.

I picked up several books by Jane Yolen, including Sister Light, Sister Dark (whose dust jacket I tossled away in anticipation of grumblings from my significant other; same with a John Varley book I grabbed, that would’ve easily found its way to Goodshowsir with plenty of sheep) which I’d read*, but did not own.

One of the books I grabbed was “To Prove a Villain”, an old academic book that collects a number of works, from Shakespeare (Richard III is presented in its entirety) & Thomas More to Josephine Tey’s “The Daughter of Time exploring the evils of the ill-starred York.

I don’t need a book, however, to know Richard of Gloucester was evil. I’ve known since I was 3, haunted by the learing sidelong gaze of that wicked king. By some great misfortune, a very large coffee-table sized volume bearing in great detail and color that murderous monarch’s portrait had its home on the far end of my father’s wire-frame bookshelf, positioned such that if I had so foolishly decided to sleep with my door open and my head at the foot of the bed, I did so under his watchful eyes. As he twiddled his rings, shot me half-smiles, and even winked at me from his place on the shelf, I knew, though I knew not his name, that this was a wicked man!

A face that literally frightens small children.




*:the version I’d read had the much less booberiffic cover that came out after Tor realized they put a picture of three naked women on a Young Adult fantasy** story for girls and said picture of naked women might discourage young readers (or at least parents).

**: And, y’know, the funny thing is, if you got rid of all the wretched covers, most sci-fi/fantasy pulp makes for great YA reading***.  In fact, there was an Andre Norton book that was IN the YA section of the sale that I almost grabbed but didn’t (I grabbed one of her other books, instead), simply because I didn’t want to defend its contemptible cover.

***: or kinda wonky Saturday Morning Cartoons.

Shadow Over Alfheim Pt 5 – Necromancers of Stull (Commenced)

Rather than continue with another raid on the Island Fortress or check out Gernauch (Tower of Dreams; the new character is from there and hasn’t heard from anyone there in some time), my players decided that they wanted to check out what was going on in Stull. The survivor from the raft incident reported that there had been repeated attacks on the sawmill community by strange undead things.

The goblin thief and the fighter spent a day scuttling the goblin canoes they found on the far side of the Isle, meaning that I’m going to have to adjudicate some of what was going on in there. I’ll take a look, but I’m probably going to rule that the goblins were slaughtered like dogs; the orcs (who would’ve been some friendlyish orcs from the first session) might have gotten out alive had the players not stolen their canoes (they were mercenaries who were going to be helping the goblins try to take the fortress from another tribe). Amazingly enough, the Goblin and Fighter provoked no random encounters while doing their thing.

After that, they spent a few more days in town resting, scribing a scroll, and then headed off for Stull. They heard of the attacks and negotiated a decent % of the profits from the sawmill if they could do something about the undead.

The Necromancers of Stull module is supposed to kick off with skeletons attacking the school at sundown. Only the party decided to check out the cemetary during the day and the Monk volunteered to camp out up in a tree (using his class’s climb ability!) and keep an eye out. So, he was able to sound an alarm as the skeletons poured out of the tomb. The elf managed to save the children by getting the stragglers onto a floating disk. The rest of the party fought the skeletons in the streets.

Here’s where Turning has become an issue.

They chased the skeletons back to the cemetary, killing all of them. Only according to the module, 15 minutes after the fight with the skeletons, a dozen zombies show up and attack the mill. They’ve already gone into the dungeon, and depending on how long they stay there, they’re going to either find the attack under way or find the town aflame.

The ability to turn undead in an undead campaign, especially with two characters who can turn has made things something of a mad pursuit with a cascade of encounters as people chase the fleeing undead. The party followed the skeletons back to the crypt. In the crypt, they turn a few more skeletons, and, in pursuit of them, run headlong into a party of zombies. The clerics didn’t manage to turn as many of these guys, and they put the hurt on the goblin thief, the fighter and damn near killed the elf (who still only has one hit die). They then stumbled headlong into the troop of zombies who were marching in place, but turned most of them. This was part of an encounter that is written to draw the attention of a level 6 mage and a wraith, which is where we’ll pick up next time.

I’m going to have to figure out some way to avoid every encounter beginning with most of the undead getting turned. Probably by having stronger undead. Then again, except for the Zombraire’s Estate, Necromancers of Stull is one of the only other modules that is undead heavy.

We were missing our orc and our goblin (of the non-thief variety), so if they come next week, they’ll probably ride into town, just behind the rest of the party to find the village under attack by zombies.

One thing I’d like to note, Maze of Nuromen, which had very few encounters written into the rooms themselves, tended to lend itself to more roleplaying situations, if only because it didn’t feature encounter cascade.  When rooms are close to each other (often without even a door between them) and full of monsters, there’s not single sequential encounters; it’s more a case of “While you’re fighting the monster in room a, the monsters in room b show up.  And while you’re chasing the monsters around the corner, the monsters in room c are all ‘Whoa, hey, there!'” making one big and brutal fight.

Fleshing out a Government

One problem I had when creating the world my game is taking place in is that I hadn’t really come up with any form of government. It hasn’t come up yet, thankfully, but I can foresee where it might end up a problem.

Nominally, Alfheim is a colony of the Imperium. The only things known for certain about the Imperium is that it is primarily human, it is on the border of an elven kingdom, and the deer are the king’s. Alfheim itself, just as little is known. There are nobles (the party’s patron is among them), but no system of government has yet been established in the narrative. Stull is a company town. No one seems concerned with who is in charge of Alfort. I’m going to rule that Portsdam and Estport are ruled by a council of Nobles and Burgesses under a Mayor appointed by the Empire.

What brings this up is that I just finished reading a brief history on the origin and evolution of the House of Commons in England. The short summary is that Parliament is established as a court of King, not as a representative body (democratization and the voice of the people was the furthest thing in mind), but as a means of centralizing the king’s power. Force your nobles to congregate along with the knights of the shire and burgesses with the power to bind their counties, tell them you need money, send the knights and burgesses home and then discuss important matters of policy and enactment with the nobles. In this way, the King would be able to exert influence on the barons of the realm, hear news and grievances both public and private and ensure that his rulings and decrees were known to all in the land. The only legislative power of the knights and burgesses was the ability to introduce bills of grievance for the King’s court to rule on, those rulings becoming statues of the common law.

This is a gross oversimplification, but it gives me some ideas of power structures within medieval style fantasy. Colonies, often unable to participate directly in the government body of the home-country, may be more likely to be driven to self government, as the authority of both judiciary and executives cannot as easily aid or hinder them.

Later today, or later this week, I’ll be posting my summary of the last session, including the issues I’m facing with having multiple clerics in an undead campaign.

Music – Towards Darkness, The Summit

What is my dream job?
It is to play keyboards for a metal band like Towards Darkness.  The kind of metal that just makes you want to jump off the blackest tower of the blackest obsidian castle built on the blackest mountain into the blackest ocean.

(Anyone interested in having me, drop a line!)

Shadow of Alfheim part 5 will go up monday.  Plus, I have someone interested in playtesting my Monk!

Mystery Incorporated

So, I recently watched the new(ish) Scooby-Doo series, Scooby-Doo: Mystery, Inc. with my girlfriend.

It was… bizarre. (Disclaimer: I hated Scooby-Doo growing up, didn’t like the original series, didn’t like the late 70s team-ups, didn’t like A Pup Named Scooby Doo, 13 ghosts, really anything, until the the late 90s Scooby movies. And I would begrudgingly admit that despite its awful opening theme song, What’s New Scooby Doo was watchable.) Very bizarre. It was the most ridiculous Scooby-Doo I’ve seen but often had a penchant for taking itself very seriously, especially in the second half, which was kind of jarring.

On one hand, you had Velma struggling with her failed relationship with Shaggy before ultimately coming to terms with her sexuality and coupling* with the geeky girl who, despite not being drawn in an unattractive manner, was constantly shat on by everyone over the course of the series because she was poor (her nickname, Hot Dog Water, came from the fact that her family used recycled water). Then on the other hand, you have a Freddy who’s been flanderized beyond all rational humanity.

The basis for the show is that the gang is from “the hauntedest place on earth”. As they investigate rubber-mask monster mysteries around the town, they are both guided and harangued by an earlier incarnation of Mystery, Inc. and discover that multiple groups of mystery solvers (always 4 humans and a talking animal) had been drawn to the area in search of a legendary cursed treasure.

The cursed treasure is actual eldritch space entity that has exerted its influence so that it might be found and released from its prison. This influence both draws the parties together, draws them to the treasure, and drives them mad. It also makes everyone else in the area a bit crazy, hence monster masked criminals.

The climactic conclusion of the series features:
-A rather disturbing homage to Twin Peaks
-Shaggy and Scooby wearing Kerberos Panzer Kop protect gear and fighting against an army of evil robots
-a journey across the four elemental planes
-Most secondary characters getting killed onscreen in  dead-for-real ways
-A crazy final boss battle that is Die, Vecna, Die! levels of crazy
-A reality bending denoument that retcons the show into being a prequel to the original series

Basically, it feels like someone turned their D&D campaign into a Scooby-Doo series, and the ultimate results are better than one might expect. Oh, right, yeah. I almost forgot. One masked monster was a D&D player who was getting revenge on his gaming group or something, dressing up as the big-bad from campaign. If you can sit through some of the worse episodes and be patient with how stupid a few of the characters are written (“YOU NEVER GO FULL RETARD!”), there’s really a lot of great ideas at work here to steal. Zombie Ska band.

One last thing: I’m not entirely sure if the HP Hatecraft character (played by Jeffrey Combs) was intended as a parody of the geek media that constantly tries to include Lovecraft stuff in such a way that comes off as “Hey, check it, Lovecraft, right? Pretty awesome and nerdy, huh!” and how tired it’s getting or if it’s merely a straight example of it in its tiredest form. Because seriously, as a Lovecraft fan, I’m actually sick of seeing things try to work Lovecraft in everywhere. But Harlan Ellison is a character in the show, and he is portrayed as a ridiculous and arrogant asshole, which is actually pretty funny considering that he’s voicing himself.

*:this is literally shown with *wink

People need to lay the hell off Tony Dungy

How can people be expected to respect a man’s sexual preferences if you can’t be arsed to respect a man’s coaching preferences?

Not all coaches want a media circus around their 2nd and 3rd string players. For the same reason that sane coaches stayed the hell away from Chad Johnson and for the same reason that Moss got kicked off the Vikings only a couple games into his return, Tony Dungy is saying that in his preference as a coach he does not want to have to deal with the drama-llama circus lined up (that originally was supposed to include an Oprah reality show) to follow Michael Sam around, because that kind of attention makes it hard to run a sports team. You can’t have a team when there’s that kind of focus on one player, especially a rookie. It might get you a lot of coverage and stories and interviews, but it’s not going to get you a ring, and Dungy, being a realist (and until now the go-to guy on all questions of football coaching and ethics) understands that.

Tony Dungy is entitled to his (entirely reasonable) coaching opinion, and anyone who thinks he isn’t is a hater or a Bears fan.