Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Learning from Gaming

First, I just wanted to mention that all the parts of the podcast interview I did with the guys from The First Million Words are now up! Go check them out!

Again, thanks so much to Ben and Guillermo for having me on! They did a great job :D

Now, on to real content!

(Honesty demands that I admit this is actually a repost of a blog I wrote for The Magic District back in 2009, but I've been in a blog slump lately and I figured something old was better than nothing. New writing posts coming soon, I swear! In the meanwhile, please enjoy this hopefully new-to-you post. If you want more Rachel Aaron writing advice backlist or just want to laugh at how starry-eyed I was in the halcyon days of weekly blogging, you can read all my old Magic District on-writing posts here.)

I make no secret of my nerd nature (not that I could, really, but whatever). Part of the awesome combination of being a huge nerd and being an author is that you get to steal from everywhere, including things that don’t have anything to do novels. Case in point: the other day my husband (who makes and runs role playing games and is thus an even larger nerd than myself) was talking to me about the theory behind how a good GM decides what kind of threat to throw at players.

According to him, there are 4 types of challenges players face:

1 – Easy

This is a problem the characters can face without stretching at all. Think small scale bandit attack. The characters have to act and address the problem, but they’re not really threatened.

2 – Challenging

This problem forces characters to actually dig into their resources. It’s a serious fight where the characters are threatened and may be wounded, but if they don’t botch, there’s no real risk to their lives and they don’t have to do anything particularly clever to triumph.

3 – Difficult

This is a fight where the characters are outmatched. Their lives are really threatened, and they won’t be able to win unless they use their powers in new and interesting ways. Screw ups, bad decisions, and/or sloppy planning have real consequences in a difficult challenge. Think boss fight.

4 – Overwhelming

The characters are too short for this ride. Overwhelming challenges are large scale plot events the players aren’t meant to be able to face, and are often used by the GM to railroad wandering characters back into the plot. These world-sized roadblocks can only be conquered with help from the GM through deus ex machina or a powerful NPC taking pity on the players. 

Generally my eyes glaze over when my husband starts talking about game theory, but every now and then, he comes out with something brilliant. This was one of those times. While all of these are framed in terms of players and a game, it doesn’t take much rearranging to see how diving challenges up into these categories can help with pacing a novel.

For example, an easy challenge at the beginning of the novel is a quick way to give characters instant cool factor. You simply set up a challenge that looks hard, but is actually something the character can do with ease. Stopping an assassin, say, or slaying a demon, it’s rough stuff for us normal people, but all in a day’s work for our heroes. However, this sort of thing can’t be used exclusively. A novel where the challenge level never gets above 2 (challenging) has no teeth. If the characters are never truly pushed, they’ll never grow, and you’re left with dull, static people. Plus, no one likes a main villain who goes out like a punk.

On the other hand, though, you almost never want to use an overwhelming challenge, and certainly never multiple ones. When you give your people a hurdle they can’t possibly jump on their own, you’re taking the power of the story out of your character’s hands, turning them into passengers on their own plot. While taking power away from a normally powerful character can create great tension, powerless characters are boring over the long term, and no one likes to see their favorite heroine get the shaft at the very end.

I’m constantly amazed at how many novels, especially fantasy adventures (my favorites!), start at level 1 and end at level 4 but skip everything in the middle. Or they start at 3 and never let up, so the characters are constantly in over their heads, and we as readers never really get a feel for them as competent people (which isn’t to say there haven’t been novels that have pulled this off, but it’s not an easy trick to have your character constantly on the losing side and not get beaten down or, even worse, unbelievable).

My ideal story (assuming a fresh book, not #2 in a series) starts at 1 or 2 and then slowly builds up (through a series of 2s and 3s) to a 3.5. This is a difficult challenge that looks like an overwhelming one until the characters apply some new trick and cut it down to size, tipping the situation on its head to come out on top. Those are the best! I love seeing characters start at the top of their game, and then get in more and more over their heads as things get tougher until they’re using every weapon in their arsenal, plus a few they had to make up along the way, to get out of the mess they’ve gotten themselves into.

Again, this is stuff I always kind of knew, and I’m sure none of this is new to any readers of this blog. However, for me, the act of organizing challenge into set levels gives a degree of control over what is otherwise an abstract concept (which is the whole point of role playing games – assigning numbers to concepts). This system of levels allows me, as the architect of the story, to think about the challenges my characters face in a measurable way so as to preserve tension without working myself into an impossible scenario I’m going to have to hand-of-god (or as I call it, WRITER SMASH!) my way out of. When writers smash, books get broken.

Anyway, just another one of those unexpected story paradigms I love and wanted to share, and I hope you found it useful, or at least interesting. For those of you who write, how do you approach conflict and challenge for your characters? Also, do any of you game, and does that experience have any influence on how you approach your stories? Inquiring minds want to know!

Thanks for reading!
- R


bzyglowi said...

I really love these podcasts! You have great advice and I'm really impressed by how methodically and critically you examine the craft of writing and really get into the gears and workings of how writing works and how you can use that to continually improve. I think you're absolutely correct that creative types do themselves a disservice by talking about the work as if it's magic, that it only comes with inspiration, because so much of it really IS about sitting down and working at it. I know that I definitely get much more work done when I have a list of tasks that I can cross off-- that visual progress bar is so helpful both in keeping me on task and in making me feel like I'm actually accomplishing something.

I'm an illustrator, not a writer, although I'm keenly interested in storytelling and am working on developing some stories as comics. I really liked your point about figuring out the emotional tone of a book before starting, and how story is not the same as plot. It's definitely something I'll be keeping in mind for my future projects.

bzyglowi said...

And now I realize I didn't even address the gaming part of the post at all, but I think that metric is definitely a good guide. I've done a variety of gaming, from video games to text-based forum RPs to tabletop games, and I think they've all taught me a lot about characters, character interactions, and what makes stories interesting or have a better flow.

The level of challenge is hugely important: I actually ended up giving up very early on a recent game because the difficulty of the very first boss was so high, and it just got harder from there. This was in a series of games I typically think of as being pretty casual games, so the difficulty spike was especially upsetting because I went in with no clue it would be so hard. I think you can sometimes throw characters into very challenging situations early on, but they should definitely face something easier afterwards, or it does get very wearying.

Steve said...

Thoroughly enjoyed the post. Lots of GREAT information and a lot of really good advice for new writers about working at the craft. Thanks for some excellent ideas.

Anonymous said...

Awesome post :) I'm a huge gamer nerd myself, so I get tons of inspiration by just playing different games. I used to do the table-top RP thing, and I loved GMing and coming up with challenges for the players. It does feel similar to coming up with challenges for my characters now, so I can use a lot of the same principals. Other than that, nothing gets me more fired up to write than smashing through a bunch of enemies or other players in a fantasy setting. XD

Thanks for putting it into perspective - that chart you made is going to be pretty handy!