Author Topic: The Power of Rules  (Read 1700 times)

rbuxton

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The Power of Rules
« on: September 29, 2017, 10:58:10 PM »
The Power of Rules
By Richard Buxton (rbuxton)



Should dragons obey the rules? Art from DeviantArt member Soulsplosion.
When I was young I met a girl who, like me, enjoyed writing fantasy stories. “Fantasy is very exciting,” she declared, “You can put a dragon over here, a wizard in his tower over there. Anything can happen.” I, in my cynical, childish way, disagreed. What was so creative, I wondered, about mashing up a load of fantasy clichés and seeing what came out? To me, the really exciting fantasy worlds were those where only certain things could happen. Where the laws of nature, though different to those of our own world, could be used to create all sorts of interesting characters and storylines. Even at that age I saw an irony here: was it possible that true creativity required rigid rules?

Some years later, I started work on my Demons saga, a trilogy of fantasy video games. The project never made to the screen, but it nevertheless kept my brain occupied on long car journeys. At the start of the story the hero, Dannial, has his soul forcibly removed. This comes to the attention of three warring demonic races, who all vie to fill Dannial with their own essence, thus turning him into one of their own.

Why am I using this half-baked project as an example? After sketching the plots of the first two instalments of the trilogy, I decided to think in more depth about the laws of nature of the universe I was creating. Why could some beings use magic, and others not? Why was each demon homeworld distinct? What was so important about a human’s soul anyway? When I had made these decisions, an interesting thing happened: the third instalment wrote itself. The characters, their limitations and their access to sources of magic were so clear in my mind that I could weave them together with ease. I was very pleased with this but, when I looked back at the first two parts of the trilogy, I found that their plotlines no longer made scientific sense. If only I had created my rules at the start of the process!


An island on Ravnica. Fan art from DeviantArt member fooyee.
Let’s look at another example: Ravnica, my favourite world from the card game Magic the Gathering. Ravnica consists of one giant city (think Coruscant, only fantastical) and is governed by ten independent guilds.  Like any of the Magic the Gathering worlds, all things in Ravnica can be defined by their relationship to the five “colours” of Mana, loosely comparable to the four elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Each guild draws its power from precisely two colours of Mana, and its role in the governance of the city is defined by those colours.

The Izzet Guild, for example, is responsible for infrastructure and machinery, especially anything powered by steam. Its chosen colours, therefore, are Fire and Water. The guild’s members are maverick scientists and mages known for their dangerous experiments. The guild’s leader, meanwhile, is a knowledge-obsessed genius (a Water trait in the game) who also happens to be a dragon (Fire, duh). As you can see, the simple act of combining Fire and Water enabled the designers of Magic the Gathering to create a fascinating cast of characters and a whole aspect of Ravnica’s society, both of which could function within the confines of the game.

When playing a game, the audience explicitly interacts with the laws of nature through the game’s mechanics. The principle of following strict rules in fantasy, however, is equally applicable to other media. In books, for example, the laws are just as important, but, in general, only their noticeable effects end up in the narrative.

I believe that the empowering effect of rules is not limited to the creation of worlds. Picture two art lessons in a school (I work in education so apologies if this feels like a tangent). In one lesson, the teacher is strict and rigorously enforces the school rules; in the other, the children are ill-disciplined and their behaviour is poor. In which lesson are the children able to be more creative? Children, no matter what they tell you, crave (and flourish in) a stable environment. So my paradox appears once again: in order for children to be truly creative, they must be provided with rigid rules.

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that rules liberate, rather than restrict, a storyteller. Many storytellers would, of course, choose a different method of creating their world and, if this applies to you, I’d be interested to hear from you in the comments below. I am often accused (and justly so) of over-prescribing my rules, especially in my current “big” project: a board game in which players use the rules of the Greek myths to prove themselves the best god on Mount Olympus (you can read more about it here).

Thank you for reading, and please feel free to share any thoughts you have on this article!

Jubal

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Re: The Power of Rules
« Reply #1 on: October 03, 2017, 11:14:42 PM »
I kept meaning to respond to this and then forgetting to! Anyway, my comment - I'm with you up to a point, but only up to a point. I certainly agree that constraints can help force a writer to come up with plausible & effective settings - "necessity is the mother of invention", as they say. Rules also, though, inherently restrict what is possible - that's the point of them - and so putting in place too many arbitrary rules just ends up constricting things.

To take the schooling example, I'm not sure it is true to say that stability is the be all and end all. An overly regimented schooling system that pushes for stability at the expense of freedom doesn't always help pupils, and in particular doesn't help those who don't otherwise "fit" the system because of some mix of different difficulties or talents. Ill discipline isn't always best handled by stricter enforcement of pre-defined rules; it may require actually talking to children and finding out what the issues are, or indeed allowing children to take some initiative and build things around their own curiosity. Getting the children to mentally invest in a slightly looser structure and rules creates a much stronger structure than trying to make something that's brittle and absolute and doesn't cater for variance.

Likewise, in a project or writing, rules should come as investments from the material and its theming rather than being rigidly constructed on top of it. For example, in my Tammin stories, I could have tried to produce maps, or rules as to how magic ought to work, in order to force a degree of consistency between the different tales - but adding rules like that, whilst forcing me to think more about the world's structure, would have missed the central point of the stories, which is really to examine a certain moral worldview from Tammin's perspective. As such, the important rule in that case was "is Tammin acting as Tammin ought to act" - and the power of characters around him could vary from zero to infinity as needed around that central point.

I think the final point is the line between creator and audience - there's a distinction between rules that are passed on directly to the audience, and rules that are followed by the creator and could perhaps be worked back implicitly but are never made precisely clear. I think all creators may need to have some sort of organising rule or principle for their work (though it's often quite broad - Tolkien, for example, actually really has Catholic theology as his ultimate underpinning 'rule' for Middle-earth), but there's much more of a trade-off if it comes to making those rules explicit, especially in fantasy. Fantasy relies in part on the 'rules' of day to day existence as we know it, and on breaking those rules in unexpected ways. Being able to break those implied rules of physics and life at will and at random (at least random as far as the reader knows) can be a genuine strength, because it speaks to a human desire for discovery and wonder at the unknown. A universe with totally rigid and explicit rules perhaps risks losing that key element of fantasy - a sort of inherent hopefulness and wonder at the possibilities?
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...

rbuxton

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Re: The Power of Rules
« Reply #2 on: October 20, 2017, 10:02:34 AM »
Hi Jubal, sorry it’s taken me a while to get round to replying as well! I agree that it’s possible to restrict with arbitrary rules – I guess some sort of vetting process is required to identify the rigid and the arbitrary rules.

A school with strict rules does not have to be “regimented”, good discipline doesn’t need to involved everyone toeing a very rigid line. In an ideal world the rules wouldn’t need enforcing at all, because the children would be sufficiently invested in them, and benefiting from them, that it wouldn’t occur to them to “break” them. Problem is, children discover where the boundaries lie by pushing against them and seeing what the consequences are. A good behaviour policy isn’t, therefore, enough: the pastoral staff, the catering for special educational needs and the teacher’s own efforts to engage the students are all required to encourage children to invest in a system they view as right for them.

I like your Tammin stories example, and I envy you for them. Several times I have wanted to create a story or character where an unclassified power is involved but not central to the way the character behaves, or the themes of the stories. My problem is that, shortly after creating my powerful character, I can’t resist defining where that power comes from. The story soon morphs into an adventure in which I explore the extremes of the rules governing that power, perhaps losing the original intention of what I wanted the character to do.