Readercon is THIS WEEK – located just outside Boston, it will be a weekend full of good times, interesting panels, and a fun mix of everyone involved in the speculative fiction world. It’s this particular convention’s 30th anniversary, which means it’s as good a time as any to come on down if you haven’t before.
I’ll be there myself (primarily on Saturday, but possibly making an appearance on Friday evening), and I look forward to connecting with old friends and making new ones. Memberships for the full weekend are still available at their website, so check it out!
Here’s my schedule for the weekend, if you were hoping to find me:
Panel: The Worst Job You’ve Ever Had – Saturday, 7/13, 12:00 noon, Salon B
Bring your best stories of terrible jobs outside the literary world to this story circle of anti-nostalgia. Whether they inspired your writing or left you blocked for years, share the pain and get some validating cries of horror, peals of laughter, and grimaces of sympathy.
Reading – Saturday, 7/13, 7:00 PM, Sylvanus Thayer
Not sure what I’m reading yet (possibly something totally new!), but it should be a good time! Please come – the more the merrier!
That’s about it for me at the moment. I’m looking forward to this weekend! See you there!
The inevitable “Who Would Win: Star Trek Vs Star Wars” conversation I find endlessly tiresome these days. Oh, yes, back in my younger years I’d debate phasers vs turbolasers and Klingons vs stormtroopers all you’d want, but now I’ve come to understand that the argument is fundamentally pointless. Since none of the things introduced in either universe are real and any technical specifications given to them are essentially made-up numbers, there is quite literally no point in debating who would win in an “actual” fight, since there is no “actual” to be used and Trekkies and Star Wars fanatics simply cannot agree on common assumptions in order to have a reasonable argument.
Even as I write this, whole legions of people are out there in the darkness, sharpening their sticks to come for me if I don’t declare their faith the winner.
But I’m not here to argue this (again). I’m just not. The side which wins is whichever side the plot is on, ultimately. And anyway, my favorite answer is “Neither – it’s the Imperium of Man of Warhammer 40,000.” On that score, pretty much anybody whose spent much time delving into 40k lore are forced to concede the point, if only because the Imperial Navy of the 40k universe is RIDICULOUS in scale and destructive power and everything else.
And, of course, even as I write that, there are those people out there, sharpening their spears and baring their claws, ready to pounce.
So I’m here to do something totally different. I’m going to suggest that Star Wars, Star Trek, and Warhammer 40,000 all exist in the same universe. Don’t buy it? Okay, but listen to this:
The Galactic Empire
The Star Wars universe is described as being a long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away. This means they can easily exist in the same universe, but the odds of them every crossing paths with the Federation or Imperium are exceedingly unlikely.
Compared to Star Trek, vessels in this galaxy are much faster than those in the Star Trek universe. Hyperspace is clearly a superior FTL system – more than just a warp drive, it is something that actually punches through the material universe of spacetime into a hyperspace dimension, enabling speeds that would make Mr. Scot insanely jealous. Their weapons technology is comparatively crude, but very powerful – turbolasers and blasters, in terms of their effects on targets, seem to have a lot in common with disruptors or phasers. Blasters even have a stun function (if rarely used).
Shields and armor are less sophisticated than the Star Trek universe and many ships suffer from glaring design flaws, but the ability for the engineers in this universe to build macro-structures (like the Death Star) cannot be underestimated.
And then there’s the Force. The people of this galaxy are connected by some interstellar energy field, indescribable and extremely powerful. Those who can commune with it can navigate ships through hyperspace, move things with their minds, even transcend death. Star Trek has very little comparable with this, but this is because they are a galaxy of much younger spacefaring species, as will be made clear soon.
The Federation of Planets
Meanwhile, in a galaxy distant from the Star Wars world and many ages later, a new (nascent) series of starfaring species are seeded onto many worlds throughout this galaxy. These beings more-or-less achieve interstellar civilizations at about the same time, astronomically speaking – within a few thousand years of one another – and spread out, come into conflict, make alliances, and so on. Their method of FTL travel – called Warp Drive – is a more primitive version of hyperspace, in a sense. It warps spacetime, but does not puncture it; ships glide along the wave made by the dilation effect (subspace).
Ships in this environment are small in comparison to Star Wars. Given that these civilizations are very young and there is no purpose (yet) for larger ships, this makes sense. Their weapon systems are similarly effective as those in the Star Wars world, though their computational, sensory, and command systems are vastly superior. Shields are better, targeting computers are better, and so on. If a battle were to occur between the Galactic Empire and the Federation, individual battles would be determined by the commanders involved. However, the sheer scale of the Galactic Empire and the vastly superior interstellar speed of its (more numerous) fleets would eventually crush the Federation, almost inevitably.
Then there is the matter of the Force. The Federation has no weapons to combat this since they are scarcely aware it exists. They don’t know it exists because they have yet to puncture spacetime in a way that would lead them to become aware of it. However, such powers do exist in the Star Trek world: the wormhole aliens of DS9, the “subspace predatory” species from another dimension described in one episode of TNG (can’t remember the title – the one where they discovered some aliens were kidnapping crew members and dissecting them without anyone’s knowledge), and even the empathic powers of the Betazoids. These can be seen as certain manifestations of “the Force” being used in material space. Psychic powers.
Parts of the Warp…
The Imperium of Man
Star Trek is set in the 23rd-24th centuries. The Imperium of Man exists from the 301st to the 400th centuries. Yes, that’s right – as much as 37,000 years in the future. Humanity is an elder starfaring race – they have, at this point, forgotten more about space travel and technology than either the Federation OR the Galactic Empire have ever learned. The Imperium rules a million worlds, possibly more, and is engaged in deadly, existential-threat-level wars on all sides at almost all times.
Their means of FTL travel? They enter what they call “the Warp” – a vestige of the ancient term bandied about by early humanity’s conquests in the age of Star Trek. But this is not a simple dilation of spacetime – they rupture it entirely, traveling into a kind of hyperspace. However, this hyperspace is now full of the psychic shadows of all the creatures who have lived before and been perverted by their thoughts and ambitions and dreams. In other words: the Force has long since fallen massively out of balance. There were no Jedi to keep the peace or, if there were, the Sith long ago rose up and destroyed them utterly. Now, hyperspace/The Warp is a realm of pure, terrifying chaos. It can, however, blink fleets across vast distances at speeds even the Galactic Empire cannot duplicate. Alternatively, it can devour fleets whole or send them lost and spinning through the mutating swirls of a hell dimension for millennia.
Star Trek exists in what the Imperium’s historians refer to as “the Dark Age of Technology,” where humans achieved dizzying heights of power and progress, but never realized that the Warp was as dangerous as it was. Eventually, they were cut off by warp storms and their civilization collapsed. The Imperium rose from the ashes, fighting every step of the way. It has blighted entire planets at a rate that would make the Death Star blush. It has access to technologies that would baffle any Starfleet engineer. Their elite soldiers are genetically engineered soldiers that would make Khan look like a designer baby intended for a photoshoot, not a firefight.
The Imperium obviously wins any battles with those other settings. They have psychic soldiers and psychic hunters the equal of any Jedi (the Culexus Temple, anyone? The Grey Knights?), they seem to have actually assimilated the Borg at some point in their history (Servitors), just as Q predicted (“you will surpass us”). They have gone so far beyond exploration that now they are the moldy remnants of a once great species in a way the Federation could scarcely comprehend. Humanity did it – it conquered the stars – only to discover that the stars are a terrible, cold place where war is unending and death assured.
And all of that is part of the same history of the universe – the Galactic Empire, in the thousand years before their time and ours, doubtlessly fell to the same conflagration that threatens to devour the Imperium of the Federation’s far future. The refugees of the Star Wars universe possibly seeded the very galaxy where humanity was born. Star Trek is the placid island in between two war-torn eras, where humanity still sees endless potential and hope for the future. But sooner or later, the daemons of the Warp will twist the hearts of mortals, and the Fall will begin anew.
(Author’s note: what follows is a bit of world-building for my current novel project, tentatively titled The Iterating Assassin)
There is a simple and clear distinction to be made between the Great Races of our Union and the Lesser Races. The Great Races are those species who have overcome the Great Filter and achieved interstellar civilization. This has most commonly culminated in the achievement of FTL travel with slipdrive, but not necessarily. The Voosk, for instance, achieved it with slowships of incredibly ingenious design and the Bodani with sublight, self-propagating probes, even if both species went on to steal slipdrive technology later in their development.
Those species who have failed to achieve interstellar civilization are, by definition, lesser than those that have. This can be seen as unjust, but this is not a question of justice, but merely a practical question of social and intellectual maturity. The Great Filter is the single most important challenge any civilization faces, and any civilization that has never grappled with it and won cannot be considered equal to those who have.
So, the Filter exhibits as a series of converging crises. Any one of these crises can destroy a planet-bound or even system-bound civilization utterly, and every one of them is inevitable. These crises are as follows:
The Resource Crisis
Any successful civilization reaches the point where it uses more resources than any given planet or star system can reasonably provide via what we shall generously term “conventional” means (i.e. means outside of quantum or dark matter sources). Without tackling the Resource Crisis, the civilization will starve itself out of existence.
The Belligerence Crisis
Any sufficiently advanced civilization has at its disposal weaponry able to destroy itself. Civilizations that cannot find a way to cooperate and avoid self-destruction obviously will never overcome the Filter, as they will become extinct.
The Population/Travel Crisis
Advanced civilizations will have a positive birth rate. Inveitably, this birth rate will exceed the civilization’s capacity to provide for that population. This can be a direct side-effect of the Resource Crisis, but even if provided for materially, the growing population will lead to added instability, exacerbating both the Billigerence Crisis and the Contact Crisis. There is some argument among scholars whether this is a distinct crisis at all, but rather just a side-effect of other crises. This is also called the “Travel Crisis” for some, since this crisis can be alleviated (however temporarily) by being able to escape the confines of a single planet or series of planets.
The Contact Crisis
Advanced civilizations often will make quite a lot of interstellar noise. This attracts the attention of interstellar species, who frequently seek to make contact. In the best case scenario, a system-bound species that encounters an interstellar species is quickly overcome and becomes a vassal state to the more influential and more powerful species. In the worst case, one of the planet-eating Marshals discover the civilization and consume it.
So, the barrier to becoming a Great Race involve solving the Resource, Belligerence, and Population Crises before the Contact Crisis happens and the civilization in question reaches a satisfactory resolution to said First Contact episode. This is a rare thing indeed, and hence there are only six Great Races (eight if one counts Skennite and the Marshals).
And what of the Lesser Races? Well, that is a complex tale, perhaps best illustrated with a case study: the Quinix of Sadura.
The Quinix are arachnids of great size and intellect. They seem to grow indefinitely, but the largest specimens have
been recorded as being some 3.5 meters in diameter, from leg to leg. On average, they are between 1 and 2 meters in diameter, with eight legs, each of which sporting a three-fingered “hand” of remarkable strength and dexterity. They have six eyes and can see deep into the infrared spectrum, which serves them well in their very dim natural environs.
Quinix are omnivorous, but have a noted preference for meat. Like most arachnids, they digest their food outside their bodies using a venom injected via their fangs. Given their large size, their fangs are not of considerable size. The Quinix do not kill with their fangs, but usually use tools or even their thread and cables to kill prey before eating.
The Qunix have spinnerets, like many arachnids, and are able to weave fibers of incredible strength and elasticity from their bodies. A single adult Quinix can weave several kilometers of fiber before exhausting their stores and needing to rest. When working as a group, they are capable of building complex structures of all manner of shape and size, all with their bodies.
The Quinix are clan-based organisms by dint of biology. Quinix females only lay a single egg during their lifetime (and the process of laying the egg and caring for it is usually fatal for the mother). If successfully fertilized, that egg hatches to produce many hundreds of offspring who are, as of that moment, a single social entity. These young clans receive guidance from their father’s clan and revere their mother’s clan as holy and sacrosanct. A complex web (please pardon the pun) of social and clan relationships governs Quinix society, tied together by a mind-boggling network of relationships. Mortality on Sadura is high (the vertical environment, the constant tectonic activity, the predators, and wars between so-called “oblique” clans – clans with no familiar connection) and therefore population numbers are low, overall.
As the Quinix live in a subterranean environment (and have to – the surface of Sadura is a radiation-soaked wasteland thanks to its proximity to its red giant sun), they have no conception of night and day. Indeed, they have a very poor reckoning of time in general and, to the extent that they do tell time, it is only via generational figures (clan related, again). They follow erratic circadian rhythms that are difficult for other species to tolerate, and do not seem to rush to do much of anything.
Additionally, their concept of life and death are likewise complex. For the Quinix, one’s life includes not only the animate existence of their body, but also the continued existence of their woven cables and webs. Without destroying the cables that they wove in life, a Quinix is still considered “alive” by all social standards. Therefore, buildings woven out of Qunix fibers are quite literally “alive” in a sense difficult for other species to understand or appreciate. Cutting a cable on purpose is an act of fatal violence.
Due to the confluence of these physiological and social factors, the Quinix have not and never will be able to exceed the Great Filter. While they developed metal-working technology (made difficult by Sadura’s highly flammable high-oxygen environment), their natural building abilities hampered their interest in exploring more complex materials science that would have allowed them to progress from the construction of iron-based tools and trinkets. They therefore have never and would never develop the technology capable of destroying themselves, are not successful enough to have a resource shortage, have (or had) a near-zero birthrate, and would eventually have been discovered and consumed by a Marshal if they ever developed a radio transmitter.
Fortunately and also unfortunately for them, they were discovered by the Dryth Solon, Kaskar Indomitable in C30.10, and have spent the last two and a half cycles as a Lesser Race under the auspices of the Union of Stars. This means they they will not be haphazardly eaten by a passing Marshal (good), but also means that any further technological or social advancement will be under the influence of the Great Races that have come to their planet. They are in a permanent state of arrested development.
Furthermore, and perhaps even more unfortunately, the changes wrought by the Union to make Sadura more hospitable to the Great Races has had an exacerbated effect on Quinix society and Sadura’s ecology. Stabilizing the tectonic activity has permitted huge cities to be built, resulting in a spike in the Quinix birthrate but also nowhere for those Quinix to go except into off-world settlements. They are a servant species on their own planet, their old clan wars and dreams of dominion crushed beneath the off-worlder’s technological superiority. The Quinix are gradually losing their cultural identity and are no longer masters of their own environment. It is difficult to say what will become of them, but whatever it is, they will never again control their own destiny. Unjust? Perhaps. But also inevitable and unavoidable for those who fail to overcome the Filter.
All things considered, being relegated to a servant species is vastly superior to many of the other alternatives: ecological or military extinction, or possibly being devoured by a void-dwelling macroorganism.
Haven’t posted here in a little bit – been busy, starting new projects, editing old ones, and keeping up with the day job, etc.. I also had a little conversation with my agent recently that kinda knocked me on my ass, because I don’t really know how to respond to it.
Basically, in discussing my next novel, he made the comment that I’ve proven that I can write in a wide variety of styles and, furthermore, that I am able to write convincingly in all of these styles. But then he asked me this:
I’m just curious what an Auston Habershaw novel would sound like if it didn’t sound like something else.
What whooshing sound you hear is my self-esteem escaping through a crack in the door.
Now, my agent said he did not consider this a criticism, per se – merely an observation. See, the book he just read of mine has a wildly different style from the Saga of the Redeemed. Part of this is because it is a first person narration, part of this is because it’s a time-travel caper and not an adventure fantasy, and part of it is because, to be honest, yes, I am a bit of a style chameleon. I can write in just about any style convincingly.
But what I heard from him when he asked that question was that he isn’t sure I have my own voice and, instead, I’ve been doing “funny voices” to entertain people. Like an impressionist. That I don’t have a style of my own – there’s no way for you to see me inside the words – and it felt (a little) like being accused of having no soul. I’m some kind of doppelganger, cursed to mimic others without ever being authentic.
I don’t think my agent meant it that way, but I’ve been wondering about what he said and also wondering if that is what it means even if he didn’t mean it.
Of course, I feel like I do have a style (you’re reading it). Everybody does, honestly – style is like a fingerprint in your work and you sort of can’t avoid it. Except maybe that I can. But wait a minute, though – if I’m embodying the voice of a character, shouldn’t I be obscured? I think so. But of course, I suspect my agent thinks so, too, since he went out of his way to point out that this wasn’t a criticism, just a question. He wants to know if I have some kind of natural voice inside me. He’s pushing me to be better, and that’s a very valuable thing. All that said, though, I can’t escape the idea that I might be derivative, and that I very much don’t want.
Hence my defensiveness.
So okay, let’s accept for the moment that I have a malleable style that mirrors other work very ably but is not distinct to myself. How does one even go about changing that? I mean, I have no real idea what it means to “be myself” when I’m writing from the POV of others. Who am I, and why would you listen to me, anyway? I want to take you on grand adventures, not putter around my study with a mug of coffee and a faded sweatshirt (note: I don’t drink coffee, but you get the idea. Another example of me not being me, maybe?).
Anyway, I’m not sure what to do or even if I should worry about it. I’ve resolved, for the moment, to just let it ride, keep working, and see what develops. Ironically, my current WIP is about a shape-shifting alien with a variety of identity and self-esteem problems, so that seems weirdly appropriate. Perhaps, in Faceless, I’ve found myself after all.
Time will tell, I guess.
For my money, one of the greatest tragedies in modern American storytelling was the complete failure of the Star Wars prequels to tell any kind of compelling story. They were pretty, they were fun, but they ultimately lacked pathos or human emotion, no matter how hard the actors tried to sell it.
The thing that kills me about it was that it had all the necessary pieces to make it work. They cast a brilliant Obi Wan (Ewan McGregor remains the finest part of that series by far), had a nigh-unlimited budget, had the goodwill of millions of fans, and had the perfect set-up: a good man becomes Darth Vader, the nightmarish villain. Even the Clone Wars – at that point a totally blank slate – were rich with possibility. Then they made Anakin a little kid (?), wasted a whole movie on Naboo, channeled an extremely stalker-y vibe into Episode II, confused the hell out of everyone with the Clone army, and then had Ani go from “whiny brat” to “child murderer” in about fifteen minutes. Oh, right, and then the entire Star Wars universe can’t seem to handle a complex birth and Padme dies of nonsense causes. But it could have been so good!
But it wasn’t. It just totally wasn’t. You can disagree with me, sure – whatever – but my critique stands. I’ve watched those movies a lot by now, and I say with complete confidence that they were Not Good and definitely worse than any other Star Wars movies made before or since.
You know why?
The first reason should be obvious: I am not a child. I understand that sometimes life is disappointing and Hollywood doubly-so and I just change the channel to something I like better. This is called being an adult.
The second and arguably more important reason is that I think it is essential that writers, directors, actors, producers, artists, and all creators across the full spectrum of entertainment and literature be allowed to tell the stories they want to tell, no matter what the audience thinks of them. Now, does this mean that I want garbage like The Sopranos finale? No, of course not. Does this mean I don’t think people have a right to complain about bad storytelling? No, absolutely not – complain away! But what I don’t think the audience has a right to do is demand the artist change what they did.
No, absolutely not. Don’t even ask.
Because the work that the artist/artists created is not yours. I’m going to repeat that:
THE WORK THAT THE ARTIST OR ARTISTS CREATE IS NOT YOURS!
They made it, not you. If you don’t like it, that’s fine – feel free to complain, feel free to boycott. But you can’t force them to tell the story you want them to, no matter how much theirs sucks. You sure as hell can’t go around threatening them or their livelihood because the fictional story they presented wasn’t what you wanted it to be. That’s completely insane.
Do you know what happens when storytellers tell the stories that everybody expects them to tell? Boredom. Repetition. Basically 75-80% of everything that comes out of Hollywood (or in book publishing, for that matter). The job of the artist is to try and give the audience something they didn’t realize they wanted. This is hard. It involves taking risks, working without a net, flying by the seat of your pants, etc.. Sometimes (often?) it doesn’t work. Better artists than you or I have failed in landing franchises half as impressive as Game of Thrones. If we ever want it to work, we need to let them try, though, without living in mortal terror of what the “fans” will do to them.
Now, maybe you’re right. Maybe you could tell a better story than that in your sleep. Hell, I encourage you to try. Go ahead – show them how it’s done.
But you’re going to have to get your own story.
Welcome, brave adventurers! Do not be afraid – I am not your enemy, only a guide. You have journeyed far and suffered much to attain the summit of this, the Mountain of Prophesy. Here lies the Ultimate Treasure for one of you to claim. But be warned! The Treasure is not for the meek nor the idle; it asks of you a terrible price. One of you must sacrifice yourself willingly for the good of others by leaping from the top of this cliff, falling to your death. Only then will your companions be gifted with the Ultimate Treasure and your quest will be at an end.
Of course – and please bear with me here – there are a few provisos and rules to go over, just so we’re clear on what’s being asked here. I know, I know – this is supposed to be your climatic moment, I understand, but I’ve been here a few aeons and I think we’ll all be happier if I dispel any gray area before we begin. In my experience, everyone will be happier in the end.
Look, I feel what I’m asking is pretty clear, too – one of you needs to jump to your death right there and then you get the treasure. Pretty clear. But, just in case you were hoping for some kind of technicality, here, let me be explicit: there is no scenario that ends with you getting the Treasure and also all of you walking away alive. No resurrection. No creating a clone of yourself and getting the clone to jump off the mountain (oh, and by the way, everybody who’s tried that has really regretted it, believe me. Total shitshow, that plan).
And jumping off the mountain presumes you will die by hitting those jagged rocks way down there. No jumping, levitating halfway down, and then arguing that we’re all mortal or some nonsense and that you’ll totally die someday. Same thing goes for those of you so tough you hit the rocks down there and you’re fine – you’ve got to die.
I’m really very sorry, but these are the rules. I didn’t even make these rules, so threatening me won’t make any difference. This is some immutable, Laws of Creation-type shit. I just work here, and I’m not even technically alive, so getting me to jump off for you guys won’t work either.
Oh, and no psychic bullshit! No hypnotizing your friends into jumping off in your place or finding some poor hapless villager and charming them so that they’ll do anything for you and getting them to commit suicide. Consent, assholes – learn the word.
And yeah, it’s got to be one of you guys who climbed the mountain. You can’t teleport in your aging grandma who has two weeks to live and talk her into it. This is supposed to be an ordeal, people. There is a price to be paid. Don’t be dicks.
Look, there’s no point in getting mad at me – it wasn’t my idea to take on this quest to defeat the Ultimate Evil. I’m not the jerk here. C’mon – you were just talking about throwing your grandma off a damned cliff, you little shit.
Hey, nobody’s saying anybody needs to jump – you can go walk yourself down the mountain, for all I care. Live a happy life somewhere. I don’t give a shit, honestly I don’t. I don’t get paid on commission or something. It’s just no jump means no Treasure. Them’s the breaks.
You know what – fine! Leave. Oh stop with all the whining. Oh – oh really? You went there, huh? You think I haven’t heard all this before? Fuck off, you self-entitled little piss-ants. Beat it! Go on now – get. I got better shit to do than listen to this abuse – me, who later on has to climb his old bones down the whole damned mountain and clean your dead ass off those rocks. Fucking exhausting, is what that is. Not jumping is doing me a favor, honestly.
Ye fickle gods, some people.
Maybe I should just post this on a sign or something.
Hey! Those of you in the Boston area tonight (May 9th, 2019), come by Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge. I’ll be there between 7pm and 9pm, signing books and chatting with fans. See you there!
Hi, folks! I have survived the end of yet another grueling semester and come out the other side with news! I, as in my very person, will be signing copies of The Far Far Better Thing at Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge, MA from 7pm to 9pm! I’ll do a reading, too, and probably sign anything you shove at me, so please come down and say hello!
If you’ve never been to Pandemonium, it is one of my favorite bookstores in the Boston area, catering specifically to science fiction and fantasy books and with a vast, vast selection of board games, role-playing games, and models and miniatures, to boot. They are great people down there and I’m delighted that they’re having me back.
So, mark your calendars! One week from today – Thursday, May 9th, 7-9pm. I’m really, really hoping for a good crowd, so bring friends! The event is free! It’s easily T-accessible (Central Square off the Red Line)!
See you all there!
Behold, it is I, Vrokthar, Scourge of the Northern Wastes! I have once more emerged from my winter feasting, the stores of my longhouse long since depleted, and the meatier of my servants devoured. I look upon thy lands with a hunger that may be sated only by the screams of the cowardly, and soon will my ravaging hordes ride forth in battle.
First, though, I caught up on thy many professional sporting events, wherein you weakling fools pretend to be warriors for a limited period of time while maneuvering various spheres past various posts and, for some reason, slaughter no one and leave their weapons behind. Of this I have proclaimed my displeasure before, and it is not Vrokthar’s mighty purpose to repeat himself. No. There are other things that must be declared the farce that they are.
What is going on with post-game “entertainment?”
At first, Vrokthar assumed this would be an hour-long victory celebration, where we would watch the victors divide the spoils of their conquests, make merry with one another, and heap insults upon vanquished foe all while boasting that still greater victories were to come. This would be a worthy use of time, as few enjoy a good boast more than Vrokthar the Unspeakably Mighty and Crusher of Mountains. Ask any of my thanes, and they will tell thee that my hall is thick with the smoke of roasted meat and the roars of drunken warriors, describing their feats.
But this…this “post-game” nonsense was nothing of the kind. It was merely prattling bards asking idiotic questions of blank eyed athletes: “How did you think you did today?” and “What are you going to do to win next time?”
And their answers? Drivel! Garbage! Useless swill! “We worked real hard” these imbeciles relate, as though a man sweating from physical exertion to the point where he seems to have been greased like a pig has just enjoyed a leisurely stroll. “We went out there and we gave it our all and it was close, but we won.” OBVIOUSLY, you half-drunk donkey! We just witnessed this thing! Is this all you have to give us? Is this the extent of your insight?
Mayhap we should make these faux-warriors excuses – they are not employed to be great speakers, but great workers of deeds. Leave it, then, to the bards of your indolent society to make them seem mighty. And yet, AND YET, these puttering, puerile sycophants add even less to the meager boasts of their pathetic champions! “Did you see the way he moved his feet,” says one, as though being in motion and moving one’s feet could be exclusive states. “I mean, the reason these guys keep winning is they keep putting it in the goal.” OBVIOUSLY, YOU INCOHERENT SWINE, AS SUCH IS THE OBJECTIVE OF THE GAME!
What has become of the vigor of your people, wetlanders? How can it be that here, even in the midst of what passes for glory among your kind, can you be such wretched wastes of time and space and energy? Were Vorkthar to win one of these so-called “playoffs,” you would not find him shyly mincing words in the room-of-small-closets. NO! Vrokthar would be drinking deeply from the helm of his defeated foe! He would steal from the vanquished their livery and cast it down before the fawning masses. “BEHOLD,” sayeth he, “THE FATE OF THOSE WHO FACE VROKTHAR IN BATTLE IS FORETOLD!” Then there would be urination and the speaking of mighty oaths. I would swear to those present that upon the next meeting, I should slay their captain in open combat in center ice and, when the referees came to detain me in the Box of Ignominy, they too would be slain. And then the goals I would score would mount unto the heavens, so numerous would they be! The Scorekeeper would expire from exhaustion, and him too I would skin and mount upon my wall, so that ever afterward, when Vrokthar stood upon the field of contest, the other teams would weep and gnash their teeth and Vrokthar would be given ten goals as an offering to sate his eternal, volcanic rage, lest it melt the ice itself and the whole game be for naught.
Even now, as I speak these words, there are those among you who grow angry. “This cannot be said,” you say. “It is wrong, it is impolite, it is inaccurate.” Fools, I say! This is the point of boasting! Laugh in the face of thy foes, weaklings! Scoff at their warriors, scorn their pride – drive them to madness with your mighty speech. And if you were to lose (which obviously would happen often, because you are as a whole are an impotent and incompetent species), what of it? You would be shamed, and rightfully so, for those who are vanquished should be ashamed of themselves. And then you may plot vengeance! See, wetlander imbeciles? The fun never ends!
Methinks your post-game sports foolishness would be greatly improved by Vrokthar’s reforms. Nay, it is certain to be so. Go and see that these changes are done, or face my inestimable wrath.
So I hath spoken!
Hey, any of you nerds going to PAX East this year? If so, I think you should know that I and a select group of alpha nerds (Bobby Smithney, John Perich, John Serpico, and Samantha LeVangie) – authors, improvisors, directors, and teachers – will be heading up a panel on Roleplaying in the Now – how to use Improv skills in tabletop RPGs.
Have you ever wanted to break out of the monotony of killing things and taking their stuff? Have you ever wished there was a way to give your players more autonomy in a game without it driving you up the wall? Well, Improvisation in Roleplaying: How to Run a Game in the Now is the panel for you! A panel of experts (including me) who collectively have over 90 YEARS of tabletop gaming experience are going to tell you all about it. Oh, and here’s the kicker: PAX East (as of this posting) isn’t sold out for Thursday yet, so you can still go! There’s time!
So be there, or be a rhombus!
A friend of mine was recently looking for advice on how to run a Dungeons and Dragons game, as he had never done it before. He had put together a pretty straightforward and workable adventure to get everybody started – everybody winds up in this town to join some mercenary company, has to figure out how to get over the walls of said town, then they meet in an inn, and then there’s a bar fight.
Now, while this is perfectly serviceable, I feel that it sort of misses a really important aspect of storytelling that is directly relevant and essential to a really great tabletop gaming experience, as well, which is motivation.
Basically, all storytelling involves two basic building blocks: Motive and Obstacle. The character wants or is seeking something (Motive) and there is something that prevents them from immediately achieving that aim (Obstacle). Without the motive, there is nothing driving the character to overcome any obstacles (whether they are internal or external). Without obstacles, the character just immediately fulfills their motive and no real story occurs. What makes a story interesting is how motive and obstacle feed into one another and basically drive the story forward.
I would argue, also, that these elements transcend genre or even historical and cultural concerns. Even in so-called “conflictless” stories (such as the Japanese Kishotenketsu structure), this still exists. There is always something lacking/missing from the character, even if extremely subtle (a man is making dinner, preparing for his relatives – this is a motive for making dinner). There is always something that is going to stand in the way of the immediate realization of that goal (the man has to go to the store to buy more fish). All that changes is the nature of these two elements and their relationships to one another. In the stereotypical Campbellian Hero’s Journey (gestures vaguely at the whole MCU), the main character has an irresistible call to adventure of some kind and then must overcome a series of escalating obstacles culminating in a grand ordeal and, once victorious, returns to the world they once knew with gained wisdom and power. Even outside of that structure, though, Motive and Obstacle have to be present.
In a gaming setting, assuming your game is narrative focused, these two elements still need to be there for it to all work. What is most commonly forgotten is motive – a player makes an Elven Wizard, her identity is…Elven Wizard…and her character’s goals are to cast spells and be an elf. Naturally, this isn’t enough and this is also why the whole “we all meet in a tavern” thing is so cliche – the characters meet in a tavern because they have literally no other reason to meet or interact. The obstacles, meanwhile, are assumed – the players are going to band together, go to that dungeon, kill what they find, and collect the loot. This is fine, I guess, if all you’re involved in is a basic resource-management exercise. But assuming you’re not, it is clearly lacking…well, story.
It doesn’t take much, though, to give the game a story. All you need to do as a GM (or as a player) is to ask the players a few questions. Suggestions might include:
- What happened to you the last time you were in that dungeon?
- What have the goblins of that dungeon stolen from you and why it is important?
- What do you need the money from this quest for? Why is it important?
By establishing some basic motivations, the players suddenly have a vested interest in overcoming the obstacle before them. The story is no longer contrived. Furthermore, if your players buy into the motivations they’ve established for themselves (and hopefully they have!), the obstacles suddenly become more engaging. Saying “you can’t jump across this pit” is fine, but saying “you can’t jump across this pit, but you hear your baby girl crying your name from the other side” is a million times better!
All of this goes for writing, too, of course. If a character doesn’t have a clear motivation for doing what they’re doing, the audience isn’t going to buy in on their struggle. This is a common problem with in medias res beginnings – we don’t know why the character is in this car chase, so it’s hard to care. But if it’s managed well, we are instantly engaged and love every second of it. Then, as the motivations solidify or change into larger and more complex ones and the obstacles likewise follow suit, you’ve got the audience/players on a wild ride they don’t want to end.