Posted on February 16, 2020, 06:27:50 PM by Jubal
Characters and Why They Work: Warhammer Fantasy
Characters and Why They Work: Warhammer Fantasy
So, I came up with the idea for this article a while back and thought I'd finally get to writing it. I've not played Warhammer Fantasy since I was at school, I've never been the greatest lore expert (though I did make a fairly large game mod based on the setting), but nonetheless some characters from that game have really, really stuck with me, whilst others have been largely overwritten or are "yeah, that guy" memories that pale next to more exciting characters who I've encountered since. As such, here's an exploration of seven of the characters that I found most memorable, and what I think you can take from them when designing and writing similar ones. These are mostly the sorts of characters I'd expect as antagonists in most settings, but I think that's fairly inherent to Warhammer - most people in that setting are objectively horrible, and as it's a wargame most characters are really meant to be generals and power figures rather than solo adventurers. So let's see how some of them shape up:Richter KreugarThe tragic tale of Richter Kreugar, a gold-grabbing mercenary who betrayed his necromancer patron and was then cursed to roam the earth fighting for all eternity with a band of those he cut down while doing so, is… basically just absolutely fantastic.
There’s a strong sort of folk-horror vibe about Kreugar, and for my money he’s possibly the most horrifying character in WHFB. Sure, there are chaos horrors and spawn who lumber as horrendous balls of mutilated angry flesh, and there are great armies of zombies, but Richter and his band are worse for a couple of reasons. One of the key elements of horror is creatures that you don’t want to be like, as much as creatures who are viscerally frightening for one reason or other. There are lots of examples of that in Warhammer though – aforementioned undead or chaos spawn, for example. What makes it worse with Richter Kreugar is that he is sapient and moreover got his curse doing an arguably good act. (Sure, he may only have switched sides and murdered his paymaster because of the promise of a big pile of gold, but even if he had done it for good reasons, the result would’ve been the same.) In the Warhammer setting, life is sometimes just horrible to you.
Richter Kreugar is also really easy to mythologise, far more so than most other characters in WHFB generally. Sure, your dwarfs might speak in awe of Thorek Ironbrow’s runic talents, or your Brettonians might speak with hushed tones of the legends of the Fay Enchantress, but when it comes to telling tales in a smoky tavern late in the evening, Richter Kreugar provides a proper ghost story of the sort that’s curiously lacking elsewhere in a setting that manages to have two entire factions of undead in it. You could even write a traditional UK-style folk ballad about him without any problems, a point that I can prove on account of literally having done so whilst writing this article. As such, I think he's a fantastic example of how to make a horror character who works in a fantasy setting and adventuring setup whilst still being horrifying - that folk-horror borderline is a good place to find things along those lines.Aenur, the Sword of TwilightElves often aren’t very exciting. There, I said it. And I didn’t just say it because I’m a dwarf fan. In most fantasy settings, elves are fairly predictable – they hang around in woods or mysterious ancient cities, they are snooty or otherworldly or sometimes just Mary-sue level good, etc.
Now sure, Aenur, the one elf character in original Mordheim is still snooty and standoffish. But taking the elf out of the forest and putting him into a ruined city suddenly makes him actually far more interesting, as does making him a singular special character in the whole game. Being able to suddenly dart from the shadows, carve up some evildoers with his longsword (still elven, but none of that dainty ethereal bow nonsense), and then vanish again makes him a fanastic swashbuckling man of mystery.
I think this says a lot of useful stuff about how to make elves interesting. Making them rarer definitely helps a great deal, so you get the “oh, shoot, that’s an *elf*” reaction appropriate for a dying cadre of superhumans rather than the usual groans you get when elves are just a slightly more annoying part of regular society. I’d even say there might be an advantage in cutting elves right down to the odd named character – you still get to display all the good stuff and it doesn’t get wearing so fast. The other thing Aenur shows is that there’s a lot of roles – in his case, ruined city’s swashbuckling mystery hero – that elves are really cinematically good at but don’t actually get put in that much because they’re all pigeonholed into being wizards or rangers. A solid character all round.Borgut FacebeaterBorgut is a good reminder that there’s a certain level of charismatic leadership that needs a functional subordinate to really function – in this case, that of Grimgor Ironhide, the mightiest Orc in the Warhammer setting. Borgut is his second in command and general tough, enforcer, herald, go-between, etc. The concept of a bodyguard doesn’t quite work for the greatest orc fighter of all time, but if Grimgor had one, it would be Borgut.
Borgut is a mighty warrior in his own right – savage in battle, tough as nails, brutally powerful – and, fundamentally, he’s an orc’s orc. By epitomising everything we think of as relating to orcs, he becomes the orc equivalent of an everyman character. In turn, then, Grimgor, despite in many ways being similar to Borgut in the role of “Orc turned up to eleven,” gets his differences to other orcs and orc society displayed in ways that would be impossible if Borgut wasn’t there. Borgut provides the layer and therefore the necessary distance between the practically worshipped figure of Grimgor and the ordinary greenskins of his horde, allowing the senior orc to seem further above his subordinates than would be the case otherwise. Grimgor’s cunning and mythical status are greatly accentuated by the fact that he is able to remain somewhat distant – doubly so in orc society, where ‘eadbutting your opponents into submission is a usual way of restoring order. Having someone powerful enough to do that all for you, who you have effective complete control over, is a power move beyond what orc social structures would usually allow.
Borgut is a really good example of how well written subordinates can really accentuate a leader’s personal features: the purpose of subordinates shouldn’t just be to be the weaker second challenge you take on first, it should be to underline who their leader is. By helping both prove Grimgor’s toughness through comparison to himself, and allowing Grimgor’s distancing from his horde and maintaining his mythos, Borgut Facebeater does that very well indeed.Literally Any Blood Dragon EverArguably it’s cheating that this isn’t an individual character, but the WHFB development of the vampiric bloodlines was genuinely, to my mind, very solid, and allowed them to explore different bits of the vampire archetype in a way that made some sense – the different lines had, passed down through them, different approaches to what it meant to be a vampire. The shady aristocratic Von Carsteins, the tragic ghoulish Strigoi, the mad magician Necrarchs, and so on.
And then there’s the blood dragons, who’ve worked out that there is a way to stop craving human blood – and that’s to drink the blood of a dragon. Now, the minus side of that is that it means killing a dragon, which isn’t easy to do. The plus side of that is that bam, character motivation for training to be immensely good in combat duly established, and coupled with the sort of warped knightly order style they adopt, this makes for a very good alternative take on vampires.
Blood dragons may be evil, but their primary motivation is to relieve themselves of the curse: they’re fighting you for the training challenge more than for domination or your blood. They can be given a sense of fair play that would be out of place with a Von Carstein/Dracula style vampire: if you’re going to die easily, there’s no point in fighting you to begin with, so a Blood Dragon will absolutely let you catch your breath and draw your sword before the combat starts. This also makes them antagonists who can be reasoned with – they have a deep inbuilt goal of their own which you might not necessarily just be there to hinder.
It’s an idea, the vampire as honour code driven monster slayer, that’s sufficiently non-standard that it works very well. One important thing I think we get from this is that secondary character goals shouldn’t always be either for, or opposed to, those of the protagonists: some of the most interesting evil characters aren’t those you obviously have to kill or be killed by, it’s the ones who have their own goals which will entangle with yours in interesting ways.Lumpin CroopIf you thought I was going to miss out the chance to talk about Lumpin Croop in this article, you have presumably either never met me or never heard of Lumpin Croop – and if you’re in the latter category, let’s change that fact. Lumpin Croop is a Halfling mercenary who leads a group of his species called the Fighting Cocks. Their banner is a weathervane, and they’re just wonderful to place as models on a gaming table in front of a usually suitably bemused opponent.
Lumpin’s backstory is as a poacher who, captured by a gang of gamekeepers, who got out of it by quickly spinning them yarns of adventure and a mercenary life, which they enthusiastically (and rather Tookishly) jumped at. Since then he’s been trying to give them the slip and run away home, but this only hones their by now expert tracking skills.
The fun thing with Lumpin Croop is not that he’s a different take on a Halfling, it’s that he’s an absolutely standard take on a Halfling in a setting that otherwise isn’t sympathetic to that type of character at all. In a setting that pushes to a certain extreme, as classic Warhammer arguably does with pathetic-aesthetic horror and misery, being able to hold a character like Lumpin Croop up does two important things. Firstly, it holds a mirror up to the setting, and we can see how a relatively “ordinary” character survives in it. Secondly, it lightens the gloom. Both of these are important and good for helping maintain the connection between the user/player in the setting and the main body of the setting itself. We can imagine ourselves as Lumpin in a way that isn’t true of, say, Karl Franz or Archaon the Everchosen or Greasus Goldtooth, and that to some extent both exacerbates and relieves the world around him.Skarsnik and GobblaThe Night Goblin warboss par excellence is Skarsnik, warlord of the former Dwarf hold of Karak Eight Peaks, who inflicts repeated defeats on the tiny dwarf garrison and keeps them effectively holed up in a tiny remnant of their former hold. In the chaos of Greenskins society, Skarsnik’s rise from underling to the greatest goblin warlord the world has yet seen has been largely down to a mix of cunning and ruthlessness. Alongside him is a giant cave squig called Gobbla, who is his pet (for the uninitiated, squigs are large fungal bouncing balls of teeth which some particularly mad night goblins tame or even ride).
Gobbla is every bit as important as Skarsnik – and the lesson I’d take from this is that designing antagonist type characters as a team can really work. Gobbla tells us a huge amount about Skarsnik and about how he sees himself – this powerful warlord could have, say, an enslaved Black Orc, inverting the usual power divisions in Greenskin society. Or a giant underground spider, given a general creepiness feel (at least for most people – I find spiders cute, but I’m aware it’s a minority view). But no, Skarsnik has this unpredictable ball of vaguely fungal mass with huge, huge teeth which he somehow keeps under control by feeding it on pretty much. It’s that edge of psychedelic craziness that tells us a lot about Skarsnik: that he’s very willing to dabble in the unpredictable and horrifying,
The good take-away here I think is that the monster is hugely relevant to the boss. A cunning goblin warlord is, in and of itself, not a surprising thing – “cunning” is pretty much the first goblin warboss trait in the book. Gobbla however gives Skarsnik his edge of night goblin mania. He’s not a long term, calm strategist, he’s not a revolutionary, he’s directing the enraged, chaotic energy of his forces right in the moment with a skill and unpredictable frenzy that makes him the sort of character he is.Borgio the BesiegerAbsolutely hands down one of my favourite WHFB characters, and the one who inspired me to write this list. Borgio “the Besieger” of the northern Tilean city of Miragliano is a city-state general with a great expertise in siege warfare and a host of abilities making him difficult to kill. By and large a Renaissance Man on steroids apocryphally capable of riding and reading a book whilst technically asleep, and a general much beloved of his men, Borgio is an all round solid late-medieval-Italian archetype character, right down to finally eventually being killed in his bath with a poisoned toasting fork.
It’s Borgio’s mace that really gets to me as the thing that makes him a fantastic character, because it tells us so much about him. It’s reportedly made of a cannonball that Borgio was hit by, but survived. That’s a cool starting point of course, but you then realise that the meaning goes much deeper than Borgio being the tough that nails general that others aspire to be. The sort of person who gets hit by a cannonball and survives is one thing. The sort of person who has that cannonball forged into a mace, makes sure everyone knows the fact, and wields it very prominently, is someone who is concerned with actively building his own legend. Borgio the Besieger’s actual toughness stat is a decidedly just-above-average four. His legend, however, is significantly bigger.
I think the interest in Borgio and characters like him comes from the fact that that they encourage us to separate thinking about a character’s abilities from people’s perception of their abilities, and realise that both things genuinely matter. Much of being the “world’s greatest” at something is about being very good at it but also then promoting that very effectively. This is a trope about as old as history in some ways – most of Odysseus’ classic adventures with the cyclops and so on are narrated in the Odyssey by the eponymous character itself – and I think considering how heroes construct or help construct their own legend often helps to make particularly prominent characters more interesting and helps readers or players question what they think they know about them.
I hope you enjoyed this quick run-down of these characters - please comment below if you have further thoughts, found this useful, or would like to see more articles like this! As ever, if you have something you could write for us, just check out our submission guidelines and give us a shout.
Posted on August 08, 2019, 04:47:53 PM by Jubal
Exilian Interviews: Eric Matyas!
A Conversation With: Eric Matyas!
Your Interviewer: Jubal
Eric Matyas is a long-standing Exilian member best known as founder of SoundImage, a website that provides a free to use archive of thousands of music files, images, and sound effect clips for use in games and other projects. We sent Jubal deep into the heart of SoundImage's archives to find Eric and ask him about how this huge library got started, some of the things that have happened on his journey since, and his thoughts on the future... read on!
Jubal: Firstly, tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into producing sounds and images for people to use.
Eric: I’m really an indie filmmaker at heart…one of my goals is to make my own sci-fi and fantasy films (and for them to actually be good…lol)…but I’ve been playing piano and creating music compositions since I was a kid. I got my first synthesizer, a Korg Triton, quite a few years ago and was interested in maybe making ambient albums although I had no idea how to go about it. So I concentrated on learning the synth, mostly by trial and error since there wasn’t much online help available, and I started recording some few pieces which sat on my hard drive for a long time. Then the DSLR revolution hit…indie filmmakers could finally obtain really good images in a way that was cost effective…so I borrowed a friend’s camera and started making nature documentaries. I had never tried scoring any of my own films so I looked around online for royalty-free music and discovered Kevin MacLeod’s site where he allows people to use his tracks for free with attribution. I thought, “What a great idea…I wonder if I could do this?” I contacted Kevin with some questions and he was very encouraging, so I decided to give it a try.
I didn’t know anything about making a website, especially not one for sharing music files, but I found an article in which another musician recommended creating a WordPress site. He mentioned that google likes WordPress sites so I thought maybe that would make it easier for people to find my music.
The site didn’t get much traffic at first, so I joined some forums for indie filmmakers and began posting weekly announcements as I released new tracks. Then, somehow, indie game developers began to find my site and use my work. They started sending me links to their finished games and writing to thank me for making my music available. That’s when I realized that there was a larger audience for this than indie filmmakers. Today, most of the people who use my tracks are indie game developers and they are a great community to be involved with.
As for the images, I’ve been slowly teaching myself 3D modeling and animation for several years and texture images are a big part of that so I started creating them on my own. Once the game developers found me, I thought that these images might be helpful as well so I began expanding the site to include them. They’re really meant to be building blocks rather than finished textures.
The SoundImage homepage.Jubal: On your about page, you say that you're a great believer in the "democratization of media". Can you tell us a bit more about that, and the vision behind SoundImage as a site?
Eric: The vision of Soundimage has always been to make good-sounding music and other assets available to anyone regardless of their budget. Call me an idealist, but I think anyone should be able to produce quality creative work, connect with an audience and be paid for their efforts without having to raise enormous amounts of money to do so. Here in the U.S., popular media is controlled by a handful of mega corporations which, in my opinion, severely limits the range of content that’s available for consumers. On a more philosophical level, we face many daunting problems as a species and I think the world needs more creative problem-solvers so I support anyone who is doing creative work.
Jubal: Did you have any idea when you started how big an archive the site was going to end up with?
Eric: I started the site with 100 tracks and tried to add one new track every day. I had looked at Kevin’s site which had over 1000 tracks at the time and it really blew my mind so I decided to try to work toward that. Then I started adding other things, like texture images, and the site grew pretty rapidly. I think it’s getting a bit out of control now… lol!
Jubal: Have you had any problems with capacity or hosting costs as the site has grown?
Eric: Not really. My hosting service doesn’t limit the number of files I can upload, but they do restrict the file sizes. That’s why my music tracks are in MP3 format…the original WAV files are usually too large.
Jubal: What's your favourite track you've composed, and why?
Eric: I don’t really have a favorite, per se, but I like “Stratosphere” from my Aerial/Drone page a lot. I thought it came out really well.
Jubal: ...and what's the most surprising use you've seen someone put SoundImage's files to?
Eric: I don’t know about surprising, but one of the projects I’ve seen that I feel the very proud about is a documentary about a struggling wildlife rehabilitation center in South Africa. Here’s a link if anyone is interested:
Jubal: What other projects have you become involved in via SoundImage - have there been any particular highlights or failures of those?
Eric: Well, more and more indie game developers are hiring me to create custom music and sound effects for them because I can do it so affordably. The synthesizers I use (there are 3 of them now) are built for rapid music creation so tracks that might take days to create can be done in a matter of hours. In that sense, I guess the website is like a giant demo reel.
I’m very passionate about science, so I’ve been combining that with my love of filmmaking and creating short films that teach kids environmental stewardship in a fun way through stories and characters rather than as informational documentaries. In essence, I’m taking learning concepts and building stories around them that kids can relate to. I’ve done seven films so far and am working on two more this fall. The organization I made them for uses them all the time with visitors, but schools have started using the films in their classrooms as well which is really cool too. One school district even put together a team of educators and created their own curriculum based on the films. So now I’m working on creating my own activities and things to share with the rest of the world. Eventually I’d like to create software and make the whole thing an interactive learning world. It’s all experimental at this point so it will be interesting to see where it leads, if anywhere, but I love the idea that the films can be used for years and years rather than being watched once and forgotten.
Three out of the many texture and image files found on SoundImage.Jubal: Smaller creators continually worry about things from a financial perspective, and your work is very much part of that scene. Do you worry, though, that free repositories like yours mean fewer opportunities for smaller scale paid texture artists or composers?
Eric: As I said, I do paid tracks as well, at pretty low cost, so I’m one of those smaller-scale paid composers. Do my free tracks take business away from my paid work? I honestly don’t know, but a lot of folks who use my free assets seem to be indie game developers and filmmakers who are learning or just starting out…often one or two-person teams…and original custom assets can be prohibitively expensive for them…especially music. The current going-rate for custom music (I am told) is $100 per finished minute of music which, in my opinion, just isn’t doable for a lot of people. I certainly couldn’t afford it for my films. I’m not saying that composers shouldn’t be properly compensated…they absolutely should…but content creators who are just starting out probably can’t afford them anyway, so I don’t see free music as taking away business. Looking to the future, I imagine there will always be people who will opt for free assets as well as those who will raise the necessary funds to pay for them.
Jubal: SoundImage has its own license which is a variant on a creative commons license - was it difficult for you to produce that, and what would you advise to anyone who might want to produce similar open-with-restrictions type licenses for their work.
Eric: My license was very easy to create because it was identical to the creative commons license…I simply added a restriction that prohibits my music and such from being used in works that are obscene or pornographic in nature. I think that anyone considering doing something like this should think about situations in which they don’t want their work being used and be very clear about it.
Jubal: Do you think there's space for SoundImage's model to be used more widely and for more photographers and composers to start open media archives like yours? Do you think there'd be any scale issues if many more people tried to do so?
Eric: I think sharing assets is a great way to network with creative people. As for scale issues, I really don’t know, but the internet is a pretty big place so I would hope that there’s room for everyone.
One of Eric's tracks, Still of Night, from his Urban collection.
Jubal: Finally, any upcoming plans for SoundImage - what can we look forward to seeing more of?
Eric: Besides using my music in their games, developers have written to me and said they enjoy listening to my tracks while they work on their projects. Some have even said that my music inspired them or gave them ideas for games which is great. With that in mind, I may put together some albums and make them available for a small fee. I’ve also had requests for the original super high quality WAV recordings of my tracks, so I’m looking at doing something similar with those as well. If you think the MP3 tracks sound good, wait until you hear the original WAV versions!
As I said, I’m really a filmmaker at heart and shooting footage is something I love to do… whether it’s for my own films or just to explore the world through my lens…so I’d like to see if there might be a need for that. I’ve visited some stock footage sites while working on my own projects and the prices seem pretty prohibitive so perhaps that’s something I can help with in a way that’s actually affordable.
On the graphics side of things, I’ve started experimenting with other kinds of game art besides textures…backgrounds and sprite objects mostly…but I’m always trying to find out what kinds of things might be useful to the community. If anyone has any suggestions, please let me know!
Jubal: It's been great talking to you! Thanks for doing this and best of luck with everything in SoundImage's future.
Eric: Thanks for having me on your website…I sincerely hope that some of my work is helpful to everyone. Keep being creative!
Eric Matyas' work is free to use with attribution in both commercial and non-commercial projects: non-attribution licenses can also be purchased. You can get updates on new work from Eric via his forum threads for music/sound effects, textures, and game art, or via his twitter @EricMatyas. We hope you enjoyed this interview, and do stay tuned for more interviews and other articles in the near future!
Posted on June 06, 2019, 05:26:23 PM by Jubal
The Pararelational Paradox
The Pararelational Paradox
Are creators becoming overloaded nodes in our social networks?So today I want to talk about pararelational hell, and whether and how we can avoid it. In short, what I’m talking about is the tendency for creators to either directly expose, or present a manicured version of, their lives outside their work, and directly drive engagement with their work by creating the impression that through it one can have a direct and personal relationship with them as independent from their work.
Examples of this are not hard to find, though there’s clearly a spectrum both in how well different people can cope with pararelational situations and how heavily people lean on this as a marketing strategy. I’ve certainly seen successful creators whose social media has ended up 50% apologies for being unable to respond to the deluges of personal messages they get from fans and connections, but who still feel that the solution to this is to keep engaging those people with “hey everyone tell me what you’re doing today” posts (as if this was something possible to keep track of for a person who’s at the limit of Facebook friends or who has tens of thousands of Twitter followers). On top of that there’s the pressure of being constantly accessible; whilst I’m sure some creators love being able to share good and bad news with the folk online who care about their work, others feel that they will be penalised for not explaining that no, they couldn’t get a comic up this week due to a recurrent illness or a bad breakup – and that part of their job is not only to share their own lives but to directly care about and deal with the issues in the lives of their community of fans on an individual level. It’s an impossible task.
I think this is genuinely primarily a tendency of the internet age: large numbers of people are now on the same social media services as creators they love, and this moves things from what in the old days would’ve been restricted to snail-speed fan mail (which few fans get the time and energy to write, except for e.g. world famous authors) to the point where a creator can tweet make a Facebook post and get two dozen replies within an hour. Broadcast social media such as Twitter and YouTube, which mostly function via open public posts, perhaps particularly encourage such a strategy, though Facebook tends to host the worst examples I’ve seen as the lure of being “friends” with a creator or commenting on their public posts seems to make people feel even more demanding of replies. Patreon and systems like it, whilst extremely good for the independent creative industries generally, also form a part of this, as one of the most standard marketing strategies is additional vlogposts, Q&As, and otherwise access to the creator in question.
So just to be clear here, I meant it when I used the term pararelational hell at the top of this post. I think pararelational marketing is exceedingly unhealthy. It screws over people who are unable or unwilling to participate in it by messing up audience expectations, burns out creators by getting them to effectively sell a huge amount of emotional labour along with their work, and leaves audiences understandably dissatisfied. The fact is that creators can’t put in the effort needed to have several hundred (or more) good friends who they talk to all the time as well as buying their stuff. I don’t say this at all as someone who feels like I’m immune to this sort of system – as you might guess from the fact I founded this website, I find creative people wonderful and interesting and want more chances to talk to them – but the extent to which we’ve normalised people being expected to lay their lives bare to those accessing their work I think is a problem, one that’s hurting creators who participate in it and those who feel unable to alike.
So what are the solutions, if there are any? It’s a difficult question to answer without trying to go through an unhelpful process of apportioning blame, which wouldn’t, I think, help anyone – both creators and fans need to readjust their habits toward something more healthy and it’s a question of how we put in systems to best help our communities do so. I think one big part is better community reporting and magazines in indie creative communities – they provide an alternative route for players and fans to find and appreciate creators’ work. Good indie journalism, if supported well, might take pressure off creators. Sure, it takes time to do press releases and so on, but better hub systems for such releases and more journalists willing to go out and find stuff rather than just waiting for press releases to roll in would help share a load which is pushed far too much onto the creators right now.
Secondly, I think we need better fan communities per se that are built around appreciation for the work, not built around personal interactions with the creator of a work. This is a problem for social media design as well, which elevates personal and direct connections to an extent which can swamp people. Actually, we may need to rebuild fan communities and news outlets which allow the creator to retain or regain a little distance. The collapse of an effective “mid tier” of fandom consisting of interviewers, community admins and moderators, and suchlike has rolled too much of the work in many cases onto creators themselves, many of whom don’t have the resources or experience to deal with it. We need to start valuing that interactivity in communities more, and see creative communities as, ideally, communities rather than just conversations. Connecting people up is not enough, and risks pressing creators to try and build the nexus of a community around themselves without the support that comes from taking a more workable, sustainable, communal approach.
All that said, I certainly don't have all the answers - I don't know what level of engagement is desirable or sustainable and I'm sure that this will vary hugely between people as it always does. But I do think the tendency to go pararelational, fuelled by a media sphere that emphasises individual connection over communal discussion, is something that we need to think about more, and I hope this has provided some thought on doing so - thankyou for reading!
Posted on April 27, 2019, 05:39:11 PM by Jubal
Ritual and re-use: writing places that feel alive
Ritual and re-use: writing places that feel alive
It struck me recently that it’d be interesting to share some thoughts on place in writing and game design. Places are, to say the least, pretty vitally important to designing any setting. A good backdrop can really set the action of a plot into appropriately epic (or appropriately non-epic) context, and hugely affect the mood of an event: being charged by a troll when you’re defending the gates of an ancient temple is a much more heroic feeling action than being charged by a troll in a large sewer tunnel, even if it’s basically the same difficulty of encounter. More prosaically, places are often largely designed by means of function – there has to be a bunch of stuff in a place that does certain things.Imagine a fantasy village called Isicando that we need a couple of rag-tag adventurers to visit. We’ll probably give them a tavern, the Blue Rose, to refuel and meet people, some sort of economic functional stuff (for the sake of argument, llama farms), a leader who we’ll call Ms. Marianda who can do local authority things, a temple, which can be to the air-spirits, and maybe a small fortified tower in case of attacks from the lizardmen. Boom, set of functions plus a not all that subtle Latin American evocation of place, and we have ourselves a settlement.
Function, however, is only a small part of what’s important to us about places, and few places are solely important to people for their intended function. Re-using and repurposing places for different things, and attaching unintended meanings to them, is a pretty natural thing for people to do. Places, for us, aren’t just about what you can do there, they’re about the stories we attach to them and the unintended aspects of their existence that make them unique. I’m going to suggest that it can add a lot of depth to a fictional setting if you incorporate that into your place design.
We’re already used to doing this a bit with taverns in particular – they’re expected to double up as “the place where a mysterious stranger offers you a quest”, rather than just being places to meet, eat, and drink. But even a tavern can have a lot of repurposing and additional meaning given to it as a place. Precisely which social circles meet at a particular tavern in any given town is important; does one guild favour one tavern and another their rivals, or perhaps a particular temple’s followers have a certain tavern they go and sing songs at after services. Maybe it’s the traditional gathering point for a certain ceremony or communal game, or hosts the village dances (with the result that about half the settlement’s people got together with their spouses there). Perhaps it’s not even humans who are repurposing the tavern – a particular tavern might be known for hosting a lot of birds’ nests in its roof, say.
Ritual and linkages are two key things to think about here, and I’ll talk about ritual first. In the previous paragraph I mentioned dances and ceremonies; settlements often have processions, carnivals, street parties, and other such events, and they’re important in binding the people of that settlement together. They also often mark particular emotional moments for people in the settlement, because they’re important in dealing with the major milestones of life, be that meeting partners, childbirth, marriage, coming of age, dying, and so on. Many of those rituals will not have discrete spaces in a typical settlement – trying to confine them all to “this is social stuff so it goes in a temple” is weird and just not how societies work. Instead, repurposed buildings and space inside buildings will double up as ritual spaces that tie everything together
That tying together leads us on to considering linkages between different societal functions. Take my example of a temple group going to the tavern to sing songs afterwards (perhaps keeping alive ones that have been removed from the official hymn book, a phenomenon that actually happened in real-world Sheffield). Or consider the relationship between governing figures and the military or economic aspects of a town – a small town leader is likely to have to take a hands on role in its economic life, and in lots of societies religious, secular, and military leadership roles could be doubled up in various combinations. Perhaps in this society the priest is required to be an active part of the garrison as the person most trusted with morality and virtue, while the town’s secular leader is mainly in charge of running the market and collecting taxes. And of course, everyone needs to meet up and have a pint now and again. So we don’t just want to think in terms of a functional model where place X hosts person Z who does thing Y – these functions and how places host them are an interlocking model, and how they interlock can be important.
Adding stories and purposes to buildings lets you promote or flesh out landmarks that are otherwise unremarkable. A village, to its inhabitants, is not simply comprised of some “function buildings” plus a few undifferentiated houses which may have different shapes or owners. Think about when you last spent time in an ordinary house in a game or story setting – it’s actually a surprisingly rare occurrence given that houses are a huge percentage of buildings in total. I think one reason for that is that in the functionality paradigm, houses are inherently boring; they get reduced to places to store stuff, sleep, eat, and poop. In practice, though, our homes are a massive part of our lives, and have a huge number of auxiliary functions and stories attached to them.
Homes can certainly be meeting places: after all, any old adventurer could just walk in on you in the tavern, so actually a decent guild gathering might well be happening at a senior guild member’s house, and even in humbler dwellings there’ll be some people who particularly enjoy hosting friends for a bite and a cup of wine. Homes are landmarks and story vessels, too – there’ll be the empty house where such-and-such who eventually ran away into the woods used to live, the house where someone got the door fixed wrong which is where you have to turn for the track down to the temple, the little white-polished house whose owner gets the job of keeping the town’s well working in winter, and so on. Homes can also be important in certain ritual or even defensive contexts, as well – perhaps one older house is built of stone and can be barricaded whilst its surrounding ones are less defensible and more vulnerable to fire, or maybe one has a cellar that the villagers know can be used to hide from the invading lizardmen.
A noticeable tree can be a camping or meeting point with different social functions.Many of the functions we’ve mentioned can be applied to non-building features too. A particular tree or large boulder or stream crossing can be a meeting place for casual bartering, a place to join hands and do circle dances, the site of wedding dances, a mustering point at times of crisis, the political space where villagers come to elect their spokespeople or plead with their overlords, and so on. Especially in smaller and more medieval style settlements, the natural landscape can be a proportionally more prominent part of what’s going on, and features from it can provide some of the most memorable locations in a certain settlement. The village that has a burned oak on the heath where its villagers go as neutral ground, in order to stop the hotly contested elections to their reeveship spilling out into violence, feels a very different one to the village with a blossom-filled orchard in which people set up stalls at the weekend for an old barter-style market (much to the chagrin of some nearby knights who have been trying to get their own market licensed in order to be able to reap the spoils of local trade, but who are unable to stop the traditional bartering from continuing). That said, those two ideas may feel very different, but there’s no reason they shouldn’t both exist in the same village – life can, after all, be very multifaceted.
So to recap, let’s look back at the Isicando we might have now. The air spirit temple is innately tied into the life of the tower garrison, which it operates. Its followers, after their weekly procession carrying offerings from the great boulder at the south end of the village up to the temple, are often to be found at the Blue Rose, singing the old songs that are no longer part of the official worship. Ms. Marianda mediates at times between a frustrated priest and his traditionalist flock, as well as leading some of the village’s less religious aspects: she is well respected by the llama herders, for whom she throws feasts once or twice a year at her house to ensure their continued support, and she can often be found heading out to help rescue an errant livestock animal stuck in the mud of the nearby swamp. As she does so, she’ll no doubt pass the well-house, a home on stilts built over the well to double up as its roof, and she’ll pass Meadow Cottage, a now-ruined old dwelling in the fields just outside the village whose owner died some years ago – the tumbledown building is now the most popular playground among the village children. We still have the same basic structures of economy, politics, military, and social gatherings, but now the places and structures are all tied together with a web of connections that both physically and socially wraps the village together and perhaps also helps us start to think better about how this society would react to the sort of pressures and changes that come along with adventurers and heroes turning up!
I hope this piece has given you a few ideas for how to get beyond that basic “here’s the menu of five places that do the things you want” system – I don’t want to be too down on that idea as it is a starting point that helps you cover the basics, but if you want to create somewhere that’s memorable and capable of sustaining the suspension of disbelief then starting to attach ritual, story, and tradition, even just occasional hints of them in the background, can go a long way towards building settlements that really feel alive.
Posted on April 22, 2019, 11:59:11 PM by rbuxton
The Betrayal of the Card
Permitted to gather wood - but for how long?
The Betrayal of the Card
They’re the most important (or only) component in many games: randomisable, concealable, invertible, portable, rotatable, categorisable and packed with information. Cards have huge potential for a game designer, but my mechanics have always lacked something crucial. Take a look at these:
1. A combat system in which players use cards to increase their strength. Imagine a Risk variant in which the more cards you have, the more you can increase your die roll.
2. A second combat system in which strength is tied to how many action cards a player has used this round. Time your attacks for the end of the round for maximum effect.
3. A game in which “worker” pieces are placed on the board to collect resources. Some resources will be off-limits until you hold a certain number of cards.
Have you spotted it yet? I haven’t really told you what those cards do because it is largely irrelevant. Only the number of collected cards matters – I might as well use boring counters instead. My playtesters are also getting frustrated by a lack of interesting cards:
Does it matter what's on the other side?
“I completed my quest. What do I get?”It’s a good point, but for now I’m preoccupied with something else: Decks. Decks are to cards what cubes are to squares: much more complex, but with many characteristics in common. I recently improved a deck by splitting it into three smaller decks, which had to be used up one after the other. I put the strongest cards in the final deck – this meant that there were no over-powered upgrades appearing early in the game.
“You get a relic card!”
“Cool, which relic is it?”
“The relics are all identical, we only care about how many you’ve collected.”
“That sucks. Couldn’t it be a magical sword or something, which gives me new powers and makes everyone else afraid of me? Wouldn’t that be exciting?”
“…. I don’t do exciting.”
This change also allowed me to improve game flow by categorising cards as “weak” or “strong”. If the weak version of a card was sitting unloved on the table, the strong card would eventually replace it. But there was another logical way of looking at this mechanic: perhaps the weak card was still present, it had simply evolved into the strong card.
So now we can imagine a new game in which weak cards are drawn early on, but bring with them a deck of two or three strong cards. Shuffle them up with your existing cards, draw them as the game progresses, control your deck so that the strong cards appear after the weak ones. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? That’s right, watch this space for Pokémon, the Copyright Infringement Game...
Editor's note: You can read rbuxton's previous article, Game Design's Ultimate Challenge, here, which contains some of the mechanics discussed in this piece. All connected!