Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Of Light and Shadows

Light shows us things. It leads us through the darkness. It frightens us when it goes out, suddenly plunging us into darkness. It frightens us almost as badly when it appears suddenly, out of nowhere, with no cause, and no rhyme or reason to it, defying the laws of physics. Light is one of the number one tools of the horror moviemaker. It is a huge factor in photography, like the kind in which I have been involving myself. The powers and limitations of light can be just as important in art of the written form. In that format of storytelling light is—just as in physical terms—a matter of time. When the story takes place on a small time scale, like the time of day, is just as important as when it takes place on the larger time scale, like which decade.

First let’s talk about horror movies. It is not my creationary forte at this time, but I consider myself something of an authority from a viewership standpoint. If I didn’t I wouldn’t be running Bob’s Reviews and I especially wouldn’t have the horror focused second entrance Bob’s Reviews: Horror Reviews. Being as I watch a fair variety of movies outside the genre as well, I feel particularly confident in saying that I see a lot more thought and consideration put into lighting in horror movies than I do in any other genre, though sci-fi sometimes does it very well. I mean this most in the condition of how lighting is used in an atmospheric sense. This can be further specified in the sense that there is more variety than consistent bright sunny days with no variations, and night scenes always well into the night but not too far—no twilight times, no dawn times.

Bringing this back to writing, the same sorts of conditions can be approximated to a certain limited degree, but should be used nonetheless, as well as they can be used. Every story shouldn’t be set in some nebulous time. Light is a huge enhancer of mood visually and can be used in much the same way when you ask your audience to imagine the scene. The more detail that can be pumped in this way, to set the scene, the better it is. The more that they have help to imagine the story, as if they are watching it unfold, the better it is. Just as likewise the weather can be helpful. Just as likewise even the hour can be helpful because 9 p.m. feels different than midnight, than does 4 a.m., 10 a.m., noon or 6 p.m. In time is where we live.

Mood: exhausted.
Music: Keep Your Eye on the Money by Motley Crue and Locomotive by Guns 'N' Roses.

Motley Crue: Theatre of Pain
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Guns 'N' Roses: Use Your Illusion II

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Time Period and Horror

Since it has become one of the driving forces in all of my writing from the RPG material, to the horror short stories and novels, I thought that today I would talk about the affect of changing the time period in which the story takes place. For my first novel I started with a certain amount of work already done. The work was short and it was rough, but it was highly detailed. It was set in the modern day—at the time that was the early 90’s. When I sat down to turn this into a novel I asked myself a very important question. What can I do to really punch this story up and make it sing? Really crystallize the horror and heighten it.

The answer was to change the time period portion of the setting. I started with the idea that there was a man who, much like most monsters, was more than a match for the people who would try to stop him. Someone who can do great bodily harm, and has the will to do it in the most horribly imagined ways, is scary only up to a point. Then it becomes, yawn, yeah the guy can tear people limb from limb literally. So what! Similarly, there is only so much terror to be had from seeing innocent Joe Blow off the street get smeared. This lead to the decision that the big bad man had to go after people who were less than helpless, even people who were just as vicious.

Okay, that’s two factors changed. However I made the best of both of them, merging them together. I still have to believe that the time shift is the stronger change of the two. Now, we have a monster of a man versus trained, high-tech, warrior-types. This to me just screamed much nastier. Think of it in terms of the Aliens movie franchise. The first one has people with not much to defend themselves with and they are way over their heads. The second has soldiers with heavy-duty gear and they are still way over their heads. Ask yourself, what if in the second film there was still only one alien and things went just as badly?

Right there I made a large difference. Other factors may be involved but that is where my second novel, the one I’m working on currently, comes in as an example. It is set back in time around twenty years. Why? In this case I was first looking to remove certain elements from play, and second I needed a more gentle and innocent time. Imagine it, all of the terrible nasty news stories of the last how many years never happened yet. No Columbine Massacre, no 9/11, much less coverage of every crime in painstaking detail with hours of coverage. The setting also poses limitations like no cell phones and no Internet. The advantages are many and tailored to the kind of story I’m telling. That’s the key. It can’t just be for the sake of doing it. It has to affect the exact story you intend to tell.

Mood: tired.
Music: Gunslinger by Demons & Wizards and Time Will Tell by Royal Hunt.

Demons & Wizards: Touched By the Crimson King
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Royal Hunt: Paradox

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Monday, January 22, 2007

Pulling it Together

Everything is made of bits of something else. It is inevitable, until you get down to the nitty-grittiest little building blocks. For material objects the parts are easy to identify. For something more ethereal or ephemeral, it is a different matter altogether. This is true of a story. There are influences, research, inspiration, and my always-favourite taint mucking up all of it from as many directions as there are stars in the sky. There are characters, and plots, and themes both intended and unintended. There are lessons, morals, and pointers on growth and the human condition… Say what?

Didn’t you know? Every story has to be an ABC After School Special. Well maybe not that blatant, but pretty close. It’s time to pull out the segments of “Sailor Moon Says” and start writing. First we need a character to act as the main character and be the focus of everything as well as be the one to learn something important from whatever encounters/situations the story is about. This main character has to be totally likeable except for one flaw, but it can’t be a terrible flaw that might make the character unlikeable. This flaw will be the focus of the growth that character has, the root of the lesson to be learned about life or love.

The growth that this character has/takes/makes can be invalidated in so many ways and they must be precluded from being a part of the story. Such invalidations include major harm or irrevocable death being visited upon the main character, being unable to learn from the situation that is the focus of the story, some other character pointing out the answer to overcoming the flaw that the main character has, and the worst, the main character being an s.o.b. and unwilling to grow or learn.

These are the other things that must be pulled together. In fact they have to be the driving force of the story otherwise it is a completely useless exorcise. There can be no entertainment without education. There can be no writers without vast knowledge of psychology or having great wisdom and having learned many lessons without just being told that something must be a certain way, or just understanding it when they see it in other people. So crack the textbook, get out there and do all sorts of stupid things so you can learn valuable lessons, and watch everyone like a hawk.

Mood: aggravated.
Music: The Sign of the Cross by Iron Maiden and Breathe a Sigh by Def Leppard.

Iron Maiden: The X Factor
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Def Leppard: Slang

P.S.: I’m being about 75% facetious above.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Horror Application

Whilst working on mine RPG… err… wrong game. Working on my psychic horror game I have been focusing on the mood and the power levels. This is because it is the psychic powers that I am working on, as exclusively as I can. Occasionally, I have been sidetracked to work on other little bits, but that is necessary it seems no matter the project. I completed a power that is one of the immediately recognisable horrific powers. For the sake of discussion let’s call this power Phantom Voices. Essentially, the psychic can cause a victim to hear voices in their head.

Some people might have issue with the kind of commentary this power might have on the real world to them. As soon as you come to a point where fantasy and reality meet, and it is the bad kind of reality, then you have to tread lightly or pretend not to notice. Imagine this scenario… the real life “Son of Sam” killer said a neighbour’s dog told him to kill. Now, you have a power in the game that causes people to hear voices, and these fictional voices in this fictional character’s head cause them to do terrible things. It is very easy to see that some people might be touchy that you are trivialising mental illness, by laying blame on other people, etc, etc.

That is a tangent to what I set out to discuss, which was how to apply the horror. For the power I have a lengthy description of what these voices can do. If you heard voices telling you over and over to do something, eventually you have to figure that you would go insane and either do what they said or hurt yourself to make it stop, even permanently, i.e. suicide. Though this is a pretty horrific concept, it needs to be laid out in the right way to really work, to make it as horrifying as it possibly can be.

What needs to be done is to apply the horror to it. You have to crawl into the readers’ heads and try to make them see it. Certainly as this an RPG a lot of it can be left to the GM, except the GM has to get it, really get it, if they are going to make the best use of it. Some of the application requirement falls upon the players too since they might be the ones playing the role of the psychic(s) with this power. Either way, though the horror is there built-in, it still has to be applied, and that is going to take some work on either side of the page. We all have our role to play.

Mood: anxious.
Music: Wake Me Up When September Ends by Green Day and What It Takes by Aerosmith.

Green Day: American Idiot
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Aerosmith: Pump

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

No More Bumpy-Forehead Syndrome

Sometimes you read an RPG and it’s apparent that you are missing some of the information that might be useful in creating the character, and more importantly missing for playing that character. The one glaring example that I always pull out immediately is Elves in the fantasy games. You get a bit of info about them, but a lot of the best information is missing because the game expects, like every other fantasy game seemingly, that you have read all of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books so thusly know a tonne about Elves. As freakish as it may be, I read the Hobbit in public school I think, but I don’t recall much about it and I haven’t read the Lord of the Rings, nor have I seen the movies. So all of these fantasy games are lacking some serious information.

Similarly, while reading the Call of Cthulhu 5th Edition RPG they refer to a tonne of different things with a wink and a nod, and generally act like you’ve read everything that H.P. Lovecraft had ever written. What is it with these initial people anyway? I need to know if I’m going to go by R.G. Male. ;) On its own the game seems practically useless to run because you’re not a part of the inner circle. Yeah, I haven’t read a tonne of Lovecraft, though I’ve read some, and I’m not particularly impressed, but that’s another topic altogether.

Cultural information about every different group there is in the game should be paramount to any game that isn’t set in the modern world where info is only a Google away. What’s worse, is some games they will even take an archetypal species like Elves, and do something non-Tolkien with them, and still do not give you the information required to play the character as anything other than a different looking human. Yes, you’ll note I said species. Race should really only apply to differences within the same species. That would include in humans the Caucasians, Negroes, Asians, etc.

It is just this sort of information, that I find missing in a lot of games, that I intend to include it in all of my game designs. It may be something that sets my games apart or it may not, but I believe its integral, and of great importance. Players and GMs should have as much material to work from as possible. It’s better to have and not use it, than be left filling in a tonne of blanks. Given the way people change up their games anyway, if they disagree with my ideas or have a better idea (more inline with their style) then I’m of the mind, “Game on.”

Mood: relaxed.
Music: Night Santa Went Crazy by Weird Al Yankovic and Live and Let Die by Guns N' Roses.

Weird Al Yankovic: Bad Hair Day
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Guns N' Roses: Use Your Illusion 1

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A Thin Line Between Freedom and Constriction

Last time the conflict was between giving the game direction and not dictating the actions of the player’s characters. Today I am thinking more about the line between filling in detail, and setting dates and history, versus leaving it to the GM to tailor to his game as needed. Leaving things open is the best and most efficient way to let everyone run their own version of the game that is different from the next group and the next. Detailing a lot of material tends to generate in some circle much the same shouting, moaning, and general hatred generated by railroading. What is it with these circles?

Back when time was on my side and I could spend hours on end thinking, daydreaming, and writing my own game material like there was no tomorrow, the idea of a lot of material tightly defined in a game left me with mixed feelings. Reading the new Powers Unlimited from Palladium Booksâ I see a lot of powers that I would have found redundant several years ago because they are simple variations on the same idea, though some of them do have the occasional nice variance, or even better with a couple, a completely different application of the power possible.

That is one way in which I would have agreed that it was a waste of pages. However, now with more and varied responsibilities and demands on my time I think these additions will be helpful because I can’t just sit down and come up with them on my own in any reasonable amount of time. Thinking back to those days when the time was available I know that I was also aware that some things which were not detailed could have been and it left me with a feeling of lacking to the game depending on what it was that was missing. More about those missing things next time.

Mood: jumbled.
Music: It Sucks to Be You by Quiet Riot and Lightning Strikes Twice by Iron Maiden.

Quiet Riot: Rehab
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Iron Maiden: Virtual XI

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Saturday, January 06, 2007

Choo-Choo Woo-Woo!

Sticking with the RPG themes for a while I decided that today I should talk about something that came up between last night and today. I was working on a move for my Rifts PbE (Play by Email) game. This game has really had me thinking about the differences between an IRL (In Real Life) and a TT (Table Top) game. In gaming there is a rather infamous action of GMs (Game Masters) called “railroading” and it is an absolute boogeyman in some circles. In those dark, damp circles the slightest indication that the players don’t have every single humanly and even inhumanly possible option open to them sends them into a blind rage.

Railroading is when the players are forced to do something, like take the left road only because that’s where the adventure lies. It’s akin to sitting on a train and letting it lead you where it will without your input as opposed to driving there yourself taking whatever road, stopping wherever you feel like it. In a game where everyone is there all at once and can express themselves in words, gestures, body language, and facial expression things run very quickly and its easy to give players millions of choices everywhere. When playing by email though, cutting the options down is a somewhat necessary evil, unless you have the time to turn moves around quicker than my group has been doing.

In this current game I’m really bucking the line between pushing the game forward, letting the players do the things that they want their characters to do, and weaving and swaying between the players to let them get their shine on. It bothers me that I might be stepping over the real line. There are lots of fake lines, at least if you want any kind of game other than a free-form do whatever kind. As soon as you tie yourself down to a plot there is no help from cutting off some options or directions to go.

Otherwise the players would be off doing their own thing and the plot would move on without them. A lack of “reality” hurts the game, and time constrictions are excellent at creating tension and giving the game real punch. The players would realistically miss all the important bits and be stuck in a bad position if they got back to it. They wouldn’t have done necessary things. Villains would have pulled off their evil plots. All sorts of things would be beyond the control the players were supposed to have, and I have to imagine that can only be worse than any gentle or even strong nudging the GM might do.

Mood: critical (eyed or minded, not in danger of dying).
Music: Day Job by Gin Blossoms and Department Of Youth by Alice Cooper.

Gin Blossoms: Congratulations I'm Sorry
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Alice Cooper: Welcome to My Nightmare

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Happy New Years 2007!

Thank you all for coming here to read me again. I hope that it will be another good year, or perhaps even better. I did slack off in a major way toward the end. I thought to make up for it that I would jump right into something useful right now.

Last night I was looking at an old pen and paper RPG called Recon. For those interested it is available from the company that puts it out. They offer on their website a free copy of the earliest edition of the game in PDF format. Here is the link… Palladium's Recon. (If you want, right click and Save Target As and put it to your own bard drive.) It is decidedly different from the rest of Palladium’s games and does not follow the Megaversal Rules, nor does it appear to be the basis of them either.

What is important about this game is something in the rules that I was looking at for the purposes of considering what to do with certain rules in one of the games that I am designing. So, I was in Recon, seeing what they had done with the long-range combat rules, particularly as they apply to modern weapons. Now, for someone familiar with Palladium’s normal system rules the Recon rules are downright complicated. However they touch on things of which I have much interest in. Such things as the difference between trying to hit someone who is running, compared to standing out in the open, compared to someone lying prone shooting at you. Also Recon seems to be only Palladium game to take into consideration day and night, affect of weather on how far you away you can fight effectively, and the affect of terrain obstructing your view.

The Recon way off handling much of that is actually in one chart. On the vertical axis they have the dice modifier, on the horizontal they have the conditions that affect that modifier laid out by distance. Standard fare as far as charts are concerned. Then they add another dimension. They add in two lines that mark what distances are the maximum for light obstructions and heavy obstructions to impair the shooter’s ability. This after a lot of the simplified stuff in other games, that forgo charts entirely, is phenomenal as far as I am concerned. Of course their chart is limited to particular kinds of set ups (for my purposes). The “third layer” charting is something I am definitely going to borrow unless I simplify even further than a chart like so many other modern game designers.

Mood: Excited.
Music: Underground by Moist and Hell No by Bruce Dickinson

Moist: Mercedes Fiva and Dime
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Bruce Dickinson: Balls to Picasso