Thursday, October 30, 2008

RPG Plot Shop: Saving the World Again

RPG plots usually center around the idea of saving something before it is lost. Generically somehow it's tied with saving the world before it is destroyed. You are that shining ray of hope for the entire world. And really, I don't think the RPG audience ever gets bored of it. How empowering it is to have the fate of the WORLD tied to YOU.

Yet as a storytelling device, it wants something more...something that makes it believable. Here are some tips to carry in your pocket.

1) It's a Small World After All
In an RPG you can travel the world in a matter of minutes. Making it a very small space. You may get to meet all the populated areas IN the world within the game. That way when you say you are saving the WHOLE world, it is accurate because you have traveled all of it and know almost everyone. Yet, this is unrealistic as far as the narrative is concerned. It takes 3 long novels for Frodo to reach Mount Doom and he didn't even travel the world and meet everyone.

However, it's all a matter of perspective. To a mouse living in a hole in the wall, the whole house may be their world. It is just as empowering to be a mouse trying to save their world (prevent a house from being destroyed) as it is to be a human trying to save a planet.

2) Save the World In chunks
Leveling right? Makes sense! The characters world can expand farther and farther as they save more and more bits of it. Maybe making friends along the way. :)

3) Make it Personal
The most important thing to do is to somehow invoke empathy from the player. They should WANT to save this world and this character. To do this you must give them human qualities.
Do NOT destroy their village, players are now not sympathetic to that idea at all.
Kidnapping is a good one, although also common.
Mystery is another one. Something out of the ordinary has appeared. This draws the players curiosity about "what happens next".

4) Are we really saving the world?
It is a challenge that can be posed to the player and/or the story - is this the right way to do things? Can we really save the world like this?
Usually this is a weak argument in RPG games because you fought all the way there, the system did not allow any other way for you to progress, so how DARE the STORY blame you for doing things that way. Really! How impertinent! *shakes fist*
Obviously this means creatively putting that choice within the game. Kind of like fable - save the world...or doom it yourself! Mwahahahaha!

5) Saving the world from non-destruction
Destroying the world or the end of the world is old sauce. Really making it work takes art and skill. It'd be great if I could think of a way but I really can't so here's what you can do alternatively. Not every villain is out for destruction...some just want to change the world for the worse. So free slaves, put an end to dictators, rob from the rich to feed the poor, or save the last Unicorn. :3

These are all suggestions for making your 'save the world' story for your RPG feel LESS like a 'save the world story'. It's not a bad plot line, it's just been used in many places and as a designer or writer, you should push yourself.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Unicorns: Modern and Classic renditions

You know writing about unicorns or a unicorn people is not that uncommon. Even in my own time I've written at least 5 stories about unicorns specifically. (The first being a paragraph I wrote in 2nd grade.) I've also read various myths and stories relating the animal itself including "Into the Land of the Unicorns" by Bruce Coville, "The Unicorns of Balinor" series, "The Obsidian Trilogy" by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory and "The Last Unicorn" by Peter Beagle. (Yes, I read the book and have the movie.) I've also read a couple of short story collections about the beast and so on and so forth.

Lately on DeviantArt, where I find lots of visual inspiration, I find lots of Unicorn people as a race. Not just furry art either. I knew I wasn't alone in my imaginings of such things. (I mean one story I wrote was about a unicorn who turns into a girl. Completely unoriginal by the way). But the myths are very different.

At least in my mind, the Classic Myth, of the Unicorn was that is was a shy, fragile beast that could only be lured by a pure maid. The creature was a symbol of purity and sacredness. Something about that still holds charm for me. Many of the stories I read base the unicorn off of this notion. It is a beast of purity that loves pure things.

Some of the more modern takes make Unicorns prudish or stuck up. Arrogant unicorns are quite fun to read. "The Last Unicorn" is one of these since the unicorn is NOT human, she has no feelings of regret and places herself as something above and beyond human standing. (Until she's turned into one herself...but I won't spoil things). Actually, it's quite common for unicorns to be as arrogant as elves in LOTR.

Whenever I write a unicorn into my story, I take my influence from what I have read before of course. In one story I wrote (Angel Gate), the character of the Unicorn (named Unicorn) was a bit of an oddball. He was drawn by pure lads instead of pure maids which was going to be a plot device since the protagonist was looking for a new KING. I didn't give things a second thought because there was nothing sexual about the Unicorn seeking the pure lad over a pure maid. (I actually never distinguished the gender of the unicorn either in the writing). However, when I shared my story with a friend they pointed out that I had written a "gay unicorn" unintentionally.

This leads to the other modern view of the Unicorn being a symbol of homosexuality. (Phallic horn and all.) Obviously this clashes mightily with my preconception of the unicorn being a beast of purity. However, it's probably more common to find the "gay" strand in a unicorn character than not. And I've fallen into the trap time and time again. Because to me, the unicorn was never a symbol of anything sexual, until that fated day when I was told my unicorn was gay.

I recently decided to rewrite that story for NaNoWriMo last year and this time took into consideration what happened. Unicorn was a pivotal character in the story and this time give a male gender. I also changed the creature to something more carnivorous and dangerous because he was originally sent to kill the protagonist. In this version, the Unicorn can only speak into minds of virgins and anyone outside of that can not hear his voice. Thus he relies on the protagonist and some of the lesser characters to have himself heard, since he actually is a very wise and practical creature. His role was still the same. He was to "sense" pure hearted candidates for the new king, but in this case was more of an assistant since the protagonist had "signs" to follow. Still, despite my trying to put up that wall, I feel the hint of gayness in his character as he expresses true concern for the future king. I've actually abandoned this story (not because of poor unicorn) because I ran into a wall with the two main characters and the events to follow. I could not motivate myself to write more.

In a role play, I created a unicorn shape-shifter character for the sake of the story named Apollos. He was a young spoiled brat, which are fun characters to write and torment. He was obsessed with purity and cleanliness to the point of annoyance for almost all the characters except the stupid one (also played by me). Being the last of the white unicorns that were suppose to select a new high priestess if she should ever die (similar to the series 12 Kingdoms where the kirin (Chinese unicorn) chooses the next emperor. I really LOVE that myth). However, it turns out that the character he chooses is actually a new high priest because he likes him the best. There were even slight tones of affection towards him and distaste for the girl who liked him. (Although I ultimately intended those two to be together. :3) It was just SO easy to fall into that.

Browsing DeviantArt and finding others who have similar unicorn characters, I find that I'm not the only one who falls into this trap. In fact, it's more common to find a gay unicorn character than a straight one. And I find myself somewhat disappointed. It has become something of a novelty now. There are 2 artists that I found that had characters drawn exactly how I wanted to draw my own unicorn people (who actually I drew before creating fully). Except drawn in a much better art style than mine. They were charming in looks and supposed personality, but what caught me by surprise (I mean really I shouldn't have been surprised) was their sexual preference.

So why this thought bubble? Because I'm writing a novel series about a unicorn people. They shape-shift into their half-human form so they can relate to elves and fae. Yet also have animal forms to defend themselves and perform specific tasks. (Also called their "pure" form).
I've taken influence from every myth I enjoy: Unicorns of Balinor, the Last Unicorn, Classic Myth and 12 Kingdoms.
From Unicorns of Balinor I have various colors for my unicorns other than white.
12 Kingdoms I take the idea that the unicorn is a "heavenly beast". (Really, the kirin stuff in that series is SO fascinating and deep. I can't express its awesome sauce.)
The Last Unicorn takes the idea of arrogance, power and almost otherworldly quality.
Classic Myth is where the magic and desire for purity comes in for at least the white variety.

My Myth for Songs of the Brinds
Brinds (my unicorn people) take their root in religion and faith (heavenly beast). They believe they are a chosen people and that is why they are the ONLY creature in the world that can perform magic (in a loose sense of the term. Magic is more of a natural phenomenon.) And the thing is, they ARE the chosen people just like the Hebrews of ancient time where I also got lots of influence. And just like the ancient Hebrews, they are capture and exiled.

The various "clans" (or races actually) are defined by their powers and looks. Originally each "clan" was going to have specific duties. The White Unicorns where the center of religion and society that needed protection. Fire and Iron Unicorns were their army and protectors. Water Unicorns were their mouthpiece. But that went away after various iterations of the myth.

The White Unicorns in my tale are still incredibly special in their powers and there is a desire to protect them. They're kind of like the Tribe of Levi in the Old Testament you know. (The tribe of Priests fyi). They were the only tribe that was allowed to touch and carry the Ark of the Covenant. That's where that influence comes from.

The other tribes don't have specific jobs, but have special talents relating to various tasks.

I've gotten off topic haven't I? Yes. Well back to unicorns then.

I think the trouble with a Unicorn "people", giving them somewhat human appearances and everything is that they become less of the myth. Just like in the Last Unicorn, when the Unicorn became human she was dying and rotting and she could feel it. She started to lose her "unicorn-ness" the longer she was in the human body. Suddenly she had human emotions and could love and regret. There lies the problem of making unicorns too human. They lose a bit of their arrogance and immortalness.

The only unicorn "people" that somehow maintain their "heavenly" origin are the kirin in 12 Kingdoms. They're shape-shifting unicorns and are in-tune intimately with the "Way of Heaven". (Oriental Philosophy). Even the one character who had his empress fall in love with him was able to maintain his aloofness and fail to return the emotion. They could feel emotion and pain more deeply than humans perhaps that's why. Still their sensitivity to evil (represented by bloodshed) caused them pain and if their emperor sinned is caused illness and eventually death if the sinner did not repent. There was just something that remained stoic and pure about the creatures. And that may be because there was no use for sex in the world AT ALL because everything was born from egg-fruit on the trees. (That solves that problem!)

But the trend goes if a Unicorn becomes human, they lose their immortality and connection to holiness. I made my unicorn people very much human on purpose though. There are only loose ties to the myths where my inspiration came from. And I stick with my Western Philosophy (sex is good! ;D) and actually spent some time figuring out how "genetics" work and how the inability to bear a child through intimacy is seen as ungodly.

I feel I may be giving too much of my story away now. And I've drifted off on so many tangents that it's time to wrap up. So let me sum up the thoughts I've shared thus far.
-The Classic Myth as inspiration
-The modern common stereotype of homosexual unicorns
-My feelings about the mixing of human qualities with the immortal myth
-My many examples of unicorn myths that I like and find inspiring
-How I've used my myths and common myths to bring my story to life.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Magic Shop

Magic in Games vs. Magic in Fantasy Novels

For a bit here, I'd like to discuss magic systems in fantasy media with a focus on games, novels and comics. The concept of magic is something that makes a person something greater than normal. It allows for the impossible to happen. But when it allows for the impossible, it becomes improbable and in some cases unbelievable. I mentioned this in my geography entry that I don't like cheesy magic in my fantasy novels. There are times when it can feel like an excuse or a plot hole ready to happen.

However, on the other hand, in visual stories such as video games and comics, I can be more forgiving about cheap magic. Because magic as well as being an empowerment to the character is a spectacle to be seen. Unless a book is illustrated you don't get that same awe (or at least I don't, since I'm visually stimulated) that you get from watching a fire ball consume something.

I'm especially, especially forgiving to games because magic IS A SYSTEM. And when something is systematic, it does not feel like an excuse, it feels like it's part of the world. It feels normal.

So let's get into some examples shall we?

Novel Magic: Harry Potter
Harry Potter novels sort of have a system, but not a very tangible one. There is something about magic being a natural talent like art or music, yet everyone who has the talent is taught. (Thus bloodlines etc). That makes magic seem more human.
There is also magic with certain limitations that are clear such as brewing a potion or handling a magic beast. That's because these things were considered a science really and supposedly even non-wizard types could do it if they could find hen's teeth. :)
Almost all other magic relies on the use of a wand and knowing the right incantations or motions.
However, if you have all these things, you were practically invincible.
(You know I'm suddenly reminded of that movie Merlin with Sam Niels and the three types of wizards: word, hand and thought. Being able to cast a spell by speaking, by hand motions and then by sheer will power. Never got beyond being a hand wizard.)

Enough side notes then. While the Harry Potter series is still an enjoyable read and delightful story because of the characters, the magic feels cheap. This may be in part because the setting is the modern world and the modern world follows a system of nature which this magic is not related to. The wands were an endless source of power (which was not used to stop global warming or our energy crisis...I mean seriously people.). There was no need to rely on a backup plan because the magic would ALWAYS work...wouldn't always work correctly but it worked.

Something about magic being the infinite power makes the story cheap, although in this case it was used tactfully enough.

Novel Magic: The Obsidian Trilogy

In the three novels by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory, we are introduced to a fantasy world of magic that is very different from the previous example. The difference was that magic was not very infinite and was not always successful. That was because magic was the realm of the gods that was imparted onto the people and that had limits. In fact, it would drain life away if you didn't do things right. Not everyone could do magic, so it was special in a way. There was a limited supply of magic which made moments when magic was used uncertain and exciting. The character was left wondering if the spell they cast would even work or if their exchange was acceptable to the gods. (Power was exchanged for doing something for the gods. The bigger the spell the higher the price).

Magic was a system in this case, but a very fluid and manipulative one that could easily fall into the trap of "convenient" magic tricks (and sometimes it did do that, but that's what writing is all about. Control!)

Visual Magic: Full Metal Alchemist
You can call it comic or anime series, both the same thing in regards to the "magic" or alchemy.
They bring in the idea of equivalent exchange similar to the previous example. It was also a science in a way where accuracy of material to be changed, symbols to write and so on had an effect on the result. It also was physically demanding on a person. Except for the main character for reasons of bloodline apparently. Like in Harry Potter, some genetics were just better at it than others. Or rather gave a predisposition to be better.

The series also takes interesting terms to make alchemy less of a science and more of a faith in certain points which makes the story better and calls into question things about alchemy.
I won't spoil I have a hard time keeping things straight in my head but how true equivalent exchange actually is comes into question. Then the whole system itself is called into question.
This is GOOD magic and entertaining, although, it is just as abused as most because the main character is special. (They have to be...they're a fugging main character. They're always special.) But his powers were not UNIQUE. There were other people who could clap their hands and not need a circle.

Game Magic: Tales of Symphonia

I could pick any game in the RPG genre, but this one I've at least played all the way through...although it's been awhile. The system of magic in games is never cheap. Really. I mean because it's not the author abusing it, it's the player using it. (Whether properly or not).
Magic in the world is usually stronger with one character over the other, but then special abilities of any kind are limited by the 'point system'. Every spell costs points (equivalent exchange B***!) the stronger the spell the more it costs. You have to recharge points in special ways if you want to continue to use magic in your fights.

The capacity to cast magic increases with practice (leveling). So in the beginning your "magic points" (MP) capacity is set to 10 points. Casting simple spells like a fire ball may cost 3 points. You can only cast 3 fire ball spells at full capacity and still have 1 point left over. That may work well for small monsters early in the game but later on things get harder and 3 won't be enough.
So as the character gains experience and so on the capacity grows say to 15. Then you can cast 5 fire ball spells at full capacity.

In the Tales example everyone uses "magic", it's just sometimes called a skill because really they don't cast anything. There are two specific magic casters in the group, Genis and his sister Raine. They both cast offensive spells like fire ball or healing or lighting. The more MP they have the more spells they can cast and stronger spells too. As they grow they learn new ones. The time it takes to cast lessens as they grow as well (which is important since this is a real time battle system).

There is also a summoner, which uses cards to summon monsters to fight for her.

Then there are 2 magic fighters, Zelos and Colette. They have mix of both "special moves" (which take MP) and magic spells to cast. Actually, everyone can cast one or two spells of some sort. (If I remember correctly).

Relating all this to Game Design

So this entry is both thoughts about magic as a system and magic as a story element. In some cases preference of the author is the deciding factor but I think it is good for authors to look to the magic used in games. Magic as a system works better (in my opinion) than magic as a plot device.

However, a game system that also considers things such as "talent" or "experience" like in stories makes it much richer. In some symbolic ways they already do this.
Mages are magic casters specifically. That is their talent and predisposition and experience. This is all reflected in their "statistics". (Although I prefer graphs to assigning numbers. It's more biological and less mechanical).

Game magic is my favorite because it can't abuse the system. It's a computer program. And having those parameters makes it feel more REAL. Because it has limits just like everything in life. How you limit it in your game system or story is important to how things play out in the long run.

Let me go over some of the systems pointed out in this entry:
Equivalent Exchange - the output is equal to input
Experience - the more you practice the better you get, especially if you are made for magic (mage)
Ambivalent Exchange - the output is greater than the supposed input or visa versa.
Physical Limits - the power is limited by a person's strength or a specific object or both.
Infinite Well of Power - wait...this system is broken
Rune Drawing - especially with those new-fangled touch screen games. Drawing runes and remembering shapes is a great system too! (The harry potter video games use this).

All of these are really useful systems to mix and match in your game's magic system. Remember that magic is defined by its limits not by it's ability. Take this consideration when you write too.

As I mentioned in my other entry about my feelings towards magic in storybooks, the less it's used the better. It can cheapen the experience if magic is just used common place. I prefer it to happen in the shadows and be a supernatural phenomenon. (Like in Chronicles of Narnia, only Aslan could do "magic" and that was because he was God. Okay...the White Witch too...but she was the Devil. Gods can do whatever they damn well please.)

Friday, October 10, 2008

What do You Believe - Religion

Often times in games with stories attached to them there may be some hintings of a religious power or common faith. This can range from gods to mirrors of current religions.

As someone who believes and practices my own faith I find it interesting when religion is included in a game. For the most part it is usually a trivial part of the game or plays mostly in the background. I consider myself very ecumenical but there are times when I feel things were done "wrong" or "poorly".

This usually happens when a game uses a faith system that reflects a current one from Earth.
Two big offenders that I have played are Luminous Arc and Tales of Symphonia.
Both have a religious power that mirrors what happens to be my faith, Catholicism.
The games featured bishops, priests and even a pope in one of the games. And in both such games, the Church of the world was villainized. Which is fairly common in popular media anyway. Needless to say I felt a little sad playing the games. Luminous Arc I ended up trading in and not finishing because the story was frustrating me and the game was pretty boring.

I may be too sensitive about the whole thing but I think it's normal to feel upset if a game shows something or says something that goes against something you feel strongly about.

However, other games with religions don't bother me at all. I in fact really enjoy when developers go through the trouble of developing an original faith system for the world. It is okay to draw some inspiration from faiths of this world but mimicing it will just be insulting to people of that faith...unless of course that is your intention.

This blog writes an excellent rant on Religion in Fantasy Fiction: