Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Update & some calm Short Fiction (because we need calm right now)

Hey folks, I hope you are alright out there in a world turning for the worst every next minute you look away. We are okay here in Leipzig, although it feels as if the hammer could drop any minute. Some hammer ... it seems like the world is coming apart at the fringes. Anyway. I'm still here, writing stuff towards completion. Gaming on and there might be some more blogging in the near future. Until then I'd like to share a some micro fiction I wrote (I know, I do that rarely here). It's nothing special, just a little story about a little boy exploring the forest behind the house. Something straight forward and simple to keep sane. I hope it does a little bit of the same for you guys out there. Stay safe, friends and neighbors.

Neal’s Day out in the Wild

Neal’s plan had been foolproof: he’d sneak past the kitchen where his mom was doing some cooking. The half unwrapped packing boxes in the hallway would provide plenty of cover. Once he was on his way out he’d give his mom a call that he’d be out and he’d be way over the porch before she could tell him otherwise. Definitely far enough away to claim he didn’t hear her!
He came as far as the shoe rack, but one of his boots betrayed him and made things difficult so that he stumbled back a bit against one of the bigger boxes and grunted even.

Neal? Is that you?” asked his mother from the kitchen. “Yeah, mom, just wanted to go out for a bit.” he was still struggling with his shoe. Not all was lost … there! He made a run for it, the shoe laces still unbound. He could do that later, now gaining distance was the prime directive. His mom was on his case, though: “Did you unpack in your room Neal?” Still to close, he couldn’t ignore it: “Yeah, mom, gotta go ...” He couldn’t let his shoes unbound either, so he stopped on the porch to bind them. He heard his mother moving some dishes in the kitchen. “Don’t be too long, love, there’ll be cake later.” That was good news. The tree line just across the lawn was calling him. He was good to go. “Take Boomer with you!”

And off he went, calling over his shoulder: “Yes, mom. Boomer! Come!”

The head of the golden retriever appeared around the corner of the house, the ears all perked up. Neal laughed. “Come, Boomer, we go exploring!” He was half across the lawn when the dog caught up, making little enthusiastic jumps. Together they entered the forest behind the garden for the first time and the world around bloomed with possibilities. “Where should we go, Boomer?” asked Neal, not slowing down. Boomer barked, but had no other say in the matter. Neal scanned his surroundings for opportunities. “We have to gain higher ground. Follow me!”

Running up slowed them down a little bit, but not much. They scared a squirrel and Neal laughed with joy as the squirrel cackled it’s anger from high up in a tree. “Sorry, Mr. Squirrel.” And then they where high on the hill behind the house. He climbed a small rock to get an even better view turned around and saw the little town they had moved to and a bit of the coast with some white boats in the harbor. There was their new house just below. His father and brother had come back with another car load of stuff and they where carrying boxes into the house, all small and in the distance. Ha! He had dodged that bullet.

The dog was at the foot of the rock looking up and barking. “Yeah, you are right, Boomer. We have not come here to look at the boring town. Just a second. Let me take a look. Good boy!” On the other side of that hill was what he came here for. What would he see? Old Ruins? A mysterious shack? An abandoned junk yard? He couldn’t wait to find out.

At first glance nothing jumped to his attention, though. All he saw was rolling hills with lots of tree tops and playing birds below him in the evening sun. The forest wouldn’t give up its secrets that easily! He had to change positions, so he climbed down the rock and up a gnarly fir to look a little bit more to the east. Boomer followed him to the tree, paying attention and wagging his tail. “Look, Boomer! We found something!”

There was a small lake just down the hill and it had a little island. An island! Maybe it had rafts, too, and the could paddle there. Who knows what could be hidden on an island! He regretted that he’d left his pirate hat at home. That would have been something! But it was definitely lost in one of the boxes in his room and he’d never see it again. No matter! He would go see that island. “Come on, Boomer, we have to check that out!” He took the last meter of the tree with a jump and went off downhill, jumping, dodging and laughing, every now and then checking if Boomer was still with him, motivating him to go faster. Not that the dog needed much motivating. He was having a blast too.

Soon the lake appeared between the tree. At first glance no rafts or boats, but maybe he could improvise something. He went through his options as he closed the distance. He could build a raft, he thought, and already imagined himself on a small boat with a sail, heading towards the island. However, without a crew the endeavor was pointless … and then he reached the lakeshore, checking left and right. No boats, no rafts. He took a closer look at the island, making himself as big as possible in the hopes he’d see something interesting. Nothing.

Swimming over there was out of the question, but his eyes where already looking for alternatives to do on this side of the lake. And sure enough, there was a big rock just on the shoreline, half hidden by reeds, and something moved on it. He immediately went into a crouch and shushed Boomer, who seemed to contemplate jumping into the lake. Neal silently moved towards the rock, a smile on his lips. He grabbed a stick lying there. Just In case. Boomer made a little jump, expecting some flying wood in his immediate future, but got shushed again. What was moving on that rock? Neal needed to know.

He whispered to Boomer to stay and kept the reeds between him and the rock as he sneaked forward to get as close as possible before he could be made. It was dark green and as big as a football, but he couldn’t see any details until he bent a little to the side. It was a turtle! Lying there, enjoying the heat of the stone, blinking into the sun, just one meter distance from where he was. He couldn’t help but whisper “Woah!”, but it was enough to have the turtle glide into the water immediately. Neal half jumped on the rock to see it swim, and caught a glimpse of it diving away.

He turned to Boomer, smiling: “That was something, wasn’t it?” The dog was sitting there, wagging his tail in some dry leafs, looking at the stick in Neal’s hand with intent. “You want the stick?” the dog made a small leap and sat down again, still wagging his tail, looking for possible stick landing zones and back to the stick. So they played fetch for a couple of minutes before Neal decided it was time for some iced tea ... and something else nagged on his mind. Something his mother had said. He just couldn’t remember, shrugged and called Boomer. He’d find out soon enough.

He considered going back over the hill as boring and decided that going left looked more interesting than going right. They took their time and Neal hit bushes and low hanging leafs leaves with his stick. Boomer was sniffing all over the place and marking territory. They were half around the hill when they heard the laughter. It was a bright and young kind of laughter. A girl. Close by. Neal changed course to check it out.

Nearby was a glade with some big rotting lugs and a small group of kids was huddling there between some high grasses. One of them was a brown haired girl with a yellow dress. She must have been the one who had laughed. Neal hid behind some bushes, hoping to get a glimpse of what those kids where doing. He heard some whispered talk and giggling, but could glean nothing.

He was so fixated on the scene on the glade, that he’d totally forgotten about Boomer and the dog wasn’t having that. As dogs would, he got a little agitated, hoping for attention. Seeing that being wiggly didn’t work, he did the next logical thing and barked. Way too loud. All time stopped. Neal froze down, the group froze down. Boomer wagged his tail, waiting for a reaction. The girl reacted first. She stood up and looked in the direction the bark came from, while the other sheepishly stayed down and tried to sneak a peak, obviously hiding something. She must be his age, Neal thought, probably younger. Nine, maybe. She looked nice, for a girl. He stood up as well and waved at her. She waved backed, still a questioning look on her face, which was exactly the moment Neal remembered the cake. So he waved her goodbye, said “Gotta go. There’s cake!” and ran off into the woods.

He’ll like it here, he thought while running back home. 

Found this AFTER writing the story ... nice :) [source]
And that's that. Some proper content and announcements will hit the blog in the near future (I hope ... this shit is stressing me out and I'm not as productive as opportunity would dictate, I'm afraid). Until then I'd like to remind you nice and beautiful people that Monkey Business, the extensive jungle crawl adventure module I published a couple of years back, is still out there and PWYW. That should keep you busy for a while ...

Monday, January 20, 2020

It's like Jazz, isn't it? (an attempt of a post about the different types of DMs out there ...)

Happy New Year, friends and neighbors. I hope you had a good one and wish all readers a great year 2020. I'll keep it casual here on the blog and post every once in a while. For now. However, there's hope that I'll get some more time in the very near future and I also might start tackling new designs this year, as Lost Songs is in the final stages of development and Ø is about to get published soon, so the next fresh thing would be exploring The Grind a bit more (D&D steampunk heists with cards!). So excited to finally tackle that one ... Anyway, let's talk about DM styles.

DMing is like playing an instrument ...

... but with words (you can quote me on that one). All right, that doesn't sound like a big revelation, I guess. However, it's in pushing the concept to see what it means in all its consequences and dimensions where the fun is. I came across this very specific issue a couple of times, although from another perspective: that of a producer of content (as a writer and designer, if you will).

Basically I was getting the impression that reviewers in general try to enforce a standard that doesn't necessarily match (or cover) all the different styles of DM
our little hobby must produce by the sheer endless variations of the basic premise that comes from learning to DM.

Now, I have talked about this from very different perspectives over time. I did that (most of the time) based on my own preferences, of course, for the simple reason that I don't know any better. It's also what has to inform my designs, so what I end up realizing ideally should match what I prefer to run. Turns out, the result is not mainstream.

Bad design choices be like ... [sources]

Which I quite like, to be honest, but I have to defend my design decisions occasionally and it's quite the tricky thing to do, as I'm still exploring my position. Well, I'm not shy in voicing my opinion, but I'm prone to make a strong case even if I have no idea what I'm talking about (result of decades of DMing, I guess).

If I'm lucky, I will argue my way to something conclusive and true over the course of such a discussion. Most of the time I have to sit down afterwards and chew on the problem a bit before I can get anywhere with it (sometimes I get to explore it here on the blog, obviously).

One topic like that was my decision to have some empty rooms in a temple dungeon in that module I wrote. Most reviewers will make a strong case that in a "product" ALL rooms should be described, because why else use a module, for instance, if not to have all the "work" been done for you? I wasn't convincing in defending my position there. Only after I read a post about empty rooms over at Delta's D&D Hotspot and wrote a comment in a Mewe Group about it, I realized not only where I come from, but also got a fair grip (I think) on how that relates to other approaches.

Here's what I wrote:
My take would be that really "empty" rooms are best to give that impression that a ruin or dungeon is mostly abandoned and it helps to emphasize that those small areas where monsters lurk are little islands with reasons to be where they are (the goblins only need 3 room, the giant spiders came through a natural crack to the underdark and set up shop because of traffic and so on). Empty Rooms are also a chance to give players some breathing room or room to maneuver or to set the atmosphere for the surroundings (noise, furniture and stuff like that). In that, empty rooms are necessary parts of the "symphony" that is manifesting when exploring a particular dungeon (or dungeon level). The idea that every room needs to have something is not only very boardgamey, it also seems to be connected to that customer's point of view of "completeness" or the demand thereof, which I believe to be problematic ... DMing is, imo, a creative endeavor and the DM should be able to join the melody with his own (like jazz) instead of just making his attempt on the melody given (I can see value in both approaches, though).
Getting that far into it, I thought it warrants a post, and here we are. But how many types can we get out of this analogy? Let's see.

Type 1: The Jazz DM

[source]
I know I'm not the only one ticking like this. We take inspiration where we can and make them motives for our improvisations. In a sense, those motives can be described as "oracles" (as I talk about here). This style would also heavily lean on sandbox play. DM like this prefer some complexity and depth with the systems they use, but also need a high level of abstraction available (material to riff off of, so to say).

The Jazz DM sees playing the game as a team effort. All contribute to the story (rules, players, setting and DM), everyone brings their own melody, their own ideas and concepts. In that sense, rules could be analogues to instruments, which makes the DM tools the leading instrument, offering specific opportunities for the other instruments to join in. Here's the Wikipedia attempt of a definition for Jazz (as far as it relates to gaming):
A broader definition that encompasses different eras of jazz has been proposed by Travis Jackson: "it is music that includes qualities such as swing, improvising, group interaction, developing an 'individual voice', and being open to different musical possibilities". [source]
I think this illustrates how we are not talking about what music is played, but about the approach to play music.

That said, it can have serious drawbacks. For one, DMs like that will have a hard time (or no interest in) DMing most published modules or adventures since they'll find it too restricting (railroady, even) without any meaningful room for improvisation (even if it's just true for the DM-side of the game*). Another thing is that players need to be up to the task (which means they'd have to bring a somewhat similar mindset). Players that go through the motions and hesitate to add their own melody will end up having less fun.

A third disadvantage I can see would be a lack of dedication for a campaign. Other "instruments" may be too tempting and the urge to experiment can result in a lack of consistency (which I try to compensate by writing and designing stuff ... to mixed success, I might add).

Ideally, a Jazz DM will offer a lively game where like-minded players are able to explore and create over the course of small campaigns.

Type 2: The Conductor DM

For me the next logical comparison. Conductors take great and complex works of art and negotiate them with an ensemble towards a performance. Your typical AD&D DM, I'd say. They orchestrate the perfect manifestation of the "instruments" of their choice and prefer rule systems that offer depth, crunch, teamplay and long campaigns (AD&D/HackMaster, CoC, Pendragon, games like that).

They tend to take themselves out of the game as much as possible. If their style emerges, it is through the conducting of the campaign as the players reach their goals from level to level by playing their characters. They'll be (or aspire to be) very savvy in the rules and trivia of the game and their joy is in seeing it all unfold as proposed by the rules.

I'd say DMs like that are good with pre-defined campaign settings (Greyhawk, Ravenloft, the works ... AD&D again, too), but excel when combining it with some campaign spanning module of sorts (Against the Giants, to give one example ... Call of Cthulhu offers some great campaigns like that as well). They'll come preppared either way. With Conductor DMs  you can play campaigns over decades.

Conductor having a moment ... [source]
The drawback of a DM style like that would be inflexibility in some aspect or another. Depending on the DM this could be rules or canon. They will also have very concrete ideas how the game is played, which means that it'll need players that are able to play along with that. 

Ideally, Conductor DMs orchestrate epic campaign arcs for players to experience and be a part of over long times.

Type 3: The Band Leader DM

This DM is less about the rules as he is about "personality". It's your typical storyteller DM, if you will (World of Darkness is the base line here, but there sure are more games like that ... 7th Sea, maybe, or Over the Edge and Prince Valiant).

The group dynamic is more towards an assortment of band members that might even have different agendas. Teamplay isn't a necessity as it is more about exploring a selection of themes and concepts. The Band Leader DM offers the stage for the other members to express themselves and shine.

Something like this? [source]
DMs like that will tend more towards improvisational theater than indirect narration or even meta play. Plots will be more dramatic and emotional than, say, epic. However, just as meticulously prepared, with the focus more on story, history, background and personal impact.

As far as drawbacks go, I'd say Band Leader DMs can run the risk of having short-lived campaigns (usually purpose build, as in, exploring some theme or another). Another drawback can be the emotional toll of playing that way and conflicts that can result out of it, depending on how mature the member of a group are.

Ideally, Band Leader DMs offer an emotional experience for players that like to express themselves in a more direct, or say, theatrical way. Everyone gets a chance to be part of a big performance.

Type 4: The DJ DM

This might be the GUMSHOE DMs. And maybe most of the indie games in general? Definitely Dungeon World and consorts. And the whole Light rules Movement, I think. It is not as much about offering to reconstruct an experience as it is about imitating one. It follows the idea that you don't play to have a step by step recreation of whatever characters are capable of but instead an abstraction of that to a degree that the process can be evoked instead of produced.

It's a difficult distinction, but nonetheless one worth having. Hear me out here. I've been thinking about this for a while now, because people tend to ignore the difference to, say, all the other games: it's the analogue of dancing to music instead of making music (which is why the DM is a DJ here, duh).

It's games where the player gets the clue and gets to shine while exposing the murder instead of grinding the evidence and hoping for some lucky rolls. It's the games where you don't have to make a calculated risk in a fight to kill the monster, but instead fight to celebrate the action happening. It's about dancing to celebrate the tune the DJ DM is throwing. You know what I mean?

Utz utz utz ... [source]
 The drawbacks I see in DMing games like this is in the limitations it forces on narratives. You don't play to get there, you play to talk about it, if that makes any sense. It's imitation, so, there'll be no depths to most games, because they quote instead of experiencing ...

Anyway. Ideally, a DJ DM will offer a Best Of players will air guitar to for a couple of evenings. And you can have that like having a night in the club every other weekend. There's nothing wrong with that (but it is a difference).

Type 5: The Composer DM

This is the DM as author. I'm not sure this is a real category or a cautionary tale, but lets go through the motions here. This is the DM that wants to tell a story and goes through the motions of engineering it. Some say, it's the guy that should rather write a book ... However. Role playing games are a new medium and who's to say that an approach like this is wrong? If we can have interactive movies, we sure as hell can have auteur-driven campaigns.

So here's my thinking: a DM like that would be driven to tell a grand story and the players are merely audience. It'd need players going along, but those players exist, I'm sure of it. This isn't even about quality, I'd say, as long as the illusion of quality is agreed upon, everyone is having a good game (I'm thinking about a vibe like Gentlemen Broncos for some reason ...).

What I'm saying is: it can work. DMs like that are about controll and will most likely claim authorship of the rules as well (playing something obscure, if not entirely DIY). However, players into emerging themselves into that private canon, will most likely reap the benefits of indulging the Composer DM.

Make it artsy, baby ... [source]
Well, the drawbacks are obvious, I think. If the composer isn't any good, players will ride that wave of hope to be close to an undiscovered genius until they crash on some neurotic cliff incident of sorts. You'll have DM player characters and calls towards the narrative anmd all those bad habits.

Ideally, the Composer DM will do a great job to please an audience that accepts that the DM is in controll. I believe it's rare, but if you can make it work, it might actually be exceptional.

Can be, but needn't be ...

Well, that's 5 styles right there. I'd go as far as saying, it covers a lot and that the analogy goes a long way. Is it definite? No, it's most likely that people will read it and find themselves a bit here and there. It's a spectrum, maybe. Is it complete? I couldn't say. Maybe not? I sure as hell have gone as far as I dare to push it. But I could very well have missed something crucial (you tell me).

That said, I see myself in most of the above to one degree or another. I think I'm the Jazz DM right now, but I would love to be the Conductor (for some proper AD&D/HackMaster campaign, man), I've tried and failed to be the DJ (but will take that approach for some limited D&D one-shot convention gig), I was the Band Leader for a while (oWoD, for real) and the Composer .. well, who doesn't like groupies :)

Another possibly interesting take-away would be that the standards we are mainly talking about right now don't pander to all the possible styles to DM a game. They mainly pander to two (I'd say). Just food for thought.

So where do you guys see yourselves? Anything I missed? Any more benefits or drawbacks to the styles I describe (I'm somewhat biased, for sure).

What's your style?! Huh! [source]
* Uuuh ... now there's a topic I haven't seen anyone talk about: railroading gamemasters. My immediate take would be that it can be just as bad (for the same reasons) as railroading players (wrote a defense about railroading once that'd apply here too, if you are interested). I'd also say it happens far more often than player railroads ...

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Star Wars Episode 7: TBA (exercise in reimagining the story never told)

First of all: I have no idea what I'm doing here. Is this an attempt in fan fiction? No. Well, yes, but more like the outline of a campaign if what Lucas started had been a campaign for a a role playing game and I were to finish it (which will never happen and has happened, but might also really only happen like below in a parallel universe). What follows are the outlines of a script or the re-telling of a movie that never existed.

I couldn't help but imagining this

[skip this part if you just want to read what I imagine Ep. VII could have been like] SWIX is all the hype now. People love hating it and making that public. I saw Ep. VII once and didn't bother afterwards. From all I heard, it turned out to be a re-imagination of the original material with the same score, better visuals and worse stories telling the same and with very bad decisions about the original cast.

I can't help but think that Lucas did make a mistake when he abandoned his vision like that. However: 1. Who could blame him after the blind hate people voiced about the prequels (unjustified, imo) and 2. I guess he didn't think it'd turn out as ugly as it did (there're rumors that the evil mouse promised him creative agency and forgot about it before the ink was dry on the contract).

Anyway, I don't go to see the movies, but I follow the discussion. Mainly because lots of people have interesting opinions and insights on the subject. There's nostalgia in there, too. I love Star Wars and its Expanded Universe. I've played the games, read some of the books (intending to read more of the old ones) and I will never cease telling people that they can have all the Star Wars they want and the way they want it FOR FREE just a download away.

Enough SW for several lifetimes [source]
In a way, this is the peanut gallery talking here, but my point is that we shouldn't be afraid to tell those stories the way we want them to be told, especially after a soulless corporation had made a public sacrifice of the franchise to their god Mammon.

I know this isn't something I do often on the blog, but I am a DM and a storyteller. Things like this happen in my brain every so often and since this specific story came together over the course of a couple of hours without me doing anything but writing down some highlights, I couldn't help but sharing it here.

I'll add that this is written under the assumption of fair use: it earns me nothing and it teaches the reader about how to structure a story (for movies or books or role playing campaigns).

It's also what I'd like to see, not necessarily what others would have liked to see (ok, so it is fanfiction :P ).

A long time ago, in a Galaxy,  far far away ...

Setup - The story is set 20 years after the death of emperor Palpatine. The Republic is in a bad state and still hasn't recovered from the war and the harsh rule of the empire. They have made the public trials, they've hunted down some of the perpetrators but billions of credits are missing and the Dark Sith Lord had left some very effective contingency plans that resulted in a dangerous Deep State manipulating and pushing the new Republic to make all the bad decisions they could make.

People are unhappy. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer and all injustices are disguised as well intended or the right thing to do. Corruption is a massive problem.

Politics was a big thing in the prequels and the EU (Clonewars, for instance), so this would be an opportunity to add some more perspectives. I call it The Deep State Arc and some of it would the classic Star Wars Prologue (the yellow floating text disappearing into the distance ... you know the drill), some of it would serve as the stage for the story.

Galactic Senate, reinstated [source]
Story 1 - This would be the main story. It'd be about Han, Leia and their daughter (let's just call her R. for no particular reason). The family is all but broken apart. Han is in prison for a crime no one talks about (which will be hinted towards and get important in Ep. VIII, for now he's just bitter and broken and old). He ignores the Hologram messages Leia is smuggling in there (with a cute little robot that might have a little arc himself, obviously) and seems to grief (for reasons explained later in the story).

Princess Leia is back in politics and tries to fill the shoes of her mother, which is the main reason for the scorn she receives from her daughter (who is around 20, a student and activist).

In the beginning they just have video conferences where they don't get along while being busy doing what they do (the princess being in the senate, the other being on demonstrations against one injustice or another). In the best sense they offer "show don't tell" as the reader/viewer/player explores the changes in the universe through their eyes and conflicts (instead of just being told).

Anyway, this changes as some assassins try to kill R., who barely gets away (she has a Jedi protection detail getting the job done ... first time lightsabers should make an appearance). It'll get obvious that R. is not taught how to be a Jedi but instead forbidden to even address the topic.

Well, after the assassination attempt she is sent home to her mother. There, surrounded by pictures and signs of a happy childhood (with a father and an uncle and a happy mother), the rift between her and Leia will be all the more obvious. It escalates one evening when R. confronts her mother about not being allowed to use the force.

Turns out, Leia had to make political concessions that denied the Skywalker bloodline access to the Jedi order. Gaining the knowledge from anywhere else would be considered a crime. It's another reason for R. having a Jedi Protection Detail: they keep her in check. It also forced Luke into exile. He and Leia parted in bad blood over this, it seems.

While this happens, R. decides to stay true to the rebellious daughter theme and starts investigating the attempt on her life. She goes places she shouldn't and asks questions she shouldn't, all without supervision, of course. That'd be the middle part of the story. A bit of action, some close calls and little revelations to keep the tension up.

Her first big clue is a guy she keeps recognizing being close to her in all the footage she can gather (she starts with the night they tried to kill her and works her way back to public announcements and demonstrations and all kinds of places where she was in public and filmed ...). He's the pattern and a ghost. Information about him seems to be protected by the Jedi order (which makes her distrust the order even more). He's about her age, has a limp and features a mean facial scar (let's call him K. for no obvious reason).

The guy is an enigma. What she can glean is ambivalent. He seems to be a good guy, but his hate towards her is also proven somewhere down the road (it'd be one of the revelations, maybe a room he had rented with lots of pictures of her, some mutilated ...).

She's also followed by a hooded figure. One time she sees the figure by chance, a second time she follows him (or her) but he escapes.

Somewhere in between it'll become obvious that she has talent in the force, but keeps it hidden, mainly using it when she is on her own.

All the way through someone is planning another go at killing her. K. seems to be involved, but there's also a figure in the shadow pulling strings.

So there's a lot going on. At some point she decides that she wants to set up a trap for the guy she is convinced planned her death. She makes contact with some of her activist friends and organizes attending a demonstration (setting: a continent devastated by a fallen Imperial Star Destroyer // Ruins of a City, leakage and radiation zones and wreckage).

Something like that ... [source]
K. appears and follows R., being all sinister and shit. She dupes her detail, making sure he follows. She confronts him in [some iconic piece of a Star Destroyer] and asks him why he wants her dead. He tells her that he had survived her grandfather's attack on the Jedi temple (BIG revelation, shifting the perception the readers/viewers/players have of the character ... there should be a flashback to that scene in there somewhere). Barely so, as proven by the scars. His parents had not been so lucky, and he wanted revenge. He planned revenge ... but he couldn't bring himself to do it.

So the next thing we learn is that he wasn't the one behind the assassination attempt. He tried to find who it was, but couldn't find the culprit (maybe he has another piece of the puzzle, but it tells us nothing without context). Both leave the encounter confused. They have some chemistry, but he is a monster and hates her.

She is about to leave the wreckage they have met in, when the true assassins make their move. The odds are against her, but K. comes to her aid and they can overcome the mercenaries sent to kill her. That's, of course, when the puppeteer makes an appearence, lightsaber and all. It's a Sith and he makes known how annoying he thinks they are. Takes his time, too, maybe tells some of his plans.

K. is paralysed, almost catatonic when confronted with a lightsaber. R. makes an attempt to attack with the force, but is shut down hard, K. tries to overcome his fears and charge, but is stabbed and stays down. Before the Sith (S. seems to be appropriate, for no reason at all), the last little mystery is solved and the hooded figure intervenes.

It is a Jedi and there'll be impressive and brutal swordplay and force shenanigans, escalating to an explosion that causes a panic at the demo. S. is killed. The Jedi is, of course, Luke Skywalker, protecting his niece.

L. Skywalker, Mickey Rourke version [source]
He tells her about the Deep State and about the conspiracy's plan to annihilate the Skywalker bloodline for good. They are all in danger, but he says the time to wait is over. She wants to go with him, learn how to use the force and find the fuckers responsible for this. They leave in the chaos and take the unconscious K. with them.

I call this The Beauty and the Beast Arc and it will carry into the next Episode.

Now, that was the climax of the first part. Let's set up the next.

Leia is told by the Jedie protection detail that her daughter is lost and most likely died in the explosion. It's unclear why they don't know better or why they are lying. She is distraught and goes to a place where she can be alone (what place this woulod be should be established some time before). Here she can let go and cry. But she is a Skywalker and the force is with her. She has a vision of her daughter and her brother (maybe training?) and it gives her hope.

The last scene of the story/movie/campaign would be her and Lando helping Han escape from prison ...

Story 2 - This basically sets up part of Ep. VIII and builds the mystery about why Han went on that last mission, how he ended up in prison and what happens there. It's not a lot I have there, but main reason for his grief is that Chewbacca died because of it. I'm thinking, they went after a politician that was big back with the empire but it went horribly wrong. His reasons would stay iunclear, though (it's that trope where what he did seems wrong, if seen out of context, a bit like what with K. happens).

Story 3... - There could be other side-plots that establish characters that might get important later on. From what I've heard, Lucas planned this thir trilogy to be a spiritual journey, so that would be a place to start. But I'll leave it at that for now. However, to give this the space opera fee, it'd be necessary to have spectacular settings, weird customs and interesting cultures and a huge cast (imo).

Well, ok, that's that. I needed to get this out of me, so to say. It has conflict over 3 generations, it has potential and tension, the old characters are still around and have to work a little for another happy end, the new characters are set up for a journey and the world is in enough turmoil to go several directions.

An Episode 8 would have the spiritual awakening as a theme and how R. and K. find each other. It would prepare and end with a huge escalation of the conspiracy, definitely gearing towards some sort of war. The 9th would be the final confrontation and the redemption of the Skywalkers. Maybe Anakin gets to apologize to K., wouldn't that be something?

[source]
Depending on the medium this would play out in, you'd have to focus on several different things here. A book would need more expostion and more characters and more arcs and introspection. Film would need lots of set design and effects and choreography, computer games would need several outcomes and an adventure structure and a combat system, skills, the works. A role playing campaign would need opportunities for the players to accompany the main characters (assuming taht the main arcs play out as the characters are around to have an impact on things).

But in the end, that'd be the story I'd have told. If you've read this far, I hope you've enjoyed it.

Epilogue

I know, this was strange. As I said above, I don't do this often, and don't think I'll do it more often in the future ... but I keep thinking that doing something like that can help setting the world a bit right after the injustice big corp did the franchise.

Actually, it's a well ignored fact that the original Star Wars rpg had a crucial part in keeping the franchise alive. More so than anyone would have (or could have) imagined. 

So I'd go one step further and offer that I'd be interested to flesh this out for REUP, make it a campaign for real, with the story above being the stage for the characters to make a difference and bear witness how the Skywalker saga ends. I just wouldn't do it alone. It'd need art and editing and all that jazz, even if it just were to publish this guerilla-style and for free (because, the law).

Since I don't think that that's going to happen, I'll leave it at that for now and hope you found some enjoyment in my take on how one could have spun that story beyond episode 6. I sure as hell liked the theatre in my mind more than what I've seen from the official version :)

The true story ... [source]

Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Good End, Part 2 (get it?)

I was thinking about not writing that part 2, leaving Part 1 hanging in thin air to make a point. Just wouldn't be the right point to make, so here we are. However, it's still not an easy thing for me to wrap the head around the following: what makes a good end depends largely on the set-up before (constituting a recognizable end to a pattern) and most role playing games suck at this a bit, as the games themselves are open-ended by nature. We are still figuring this shit out. Alright, let's take a look (and expect excursions into the unexpected, I guess).

Computer games have it backwards?

Computer games make for a great comparison, as players have an active part in the narrative within a digital environment that follows certain rules. And yet, it is different because of the limitations that come with the hardware to run those games.

The biggest among them (which will get important later on) the notion that the area of interaction needs to be predefined and complete. When the player arrives (as in, starts the game), it is all set up and done to a degree that a game can get finished (although DLCs and updates and fan based work opened games up a bit in the last years).

You'd need the whole picture to make it work [source]
Maybe it is just a matter of time until AI will create unlimited content on the fly, but we are not there yet. Until then the limitations have to be taken into account and must result in designs that could be considered backwards to what role playing games do in that they have to have the end (or several endings) done before the game is even played. All the player decides is the level of engagement, which, naturally, also describes several arcs that need to be considered.

In a sense this means more traditional storytelling with the player going through the motions and having some choices. I've seen the point made that in its extremes it relates to what among role playing gamers is referred to as "railroading".

The argument has merit, imo, because it tells us something about that particular variant of playing rpgs that is easily overlooked: not only are more people accustomed to that sort of gaming/thinking then there are roleplayers (due to the sheer popularity of digital games alone), the reason why railroading works is found in the realization that the fun is in the execution (or rather, if the tools for the execution are well done).

It doesn't get more railroady then, say, a shooter. Level-based, very little advancement (mostly temporary or through weapons) and the narratives are lack-luster most of the time. However, when done well ... the popularity of the genre speaks for itself. And if it works for computer games, it very well should work for role playing games. Actually, board games work a bit like that (having a very limited scope on a subject that could be described as railroading), and crossing that bridge into role playing territory is even easier.

(Guess what I'm saying is: don't hate the railroad, hate the game that doesn't make it fun?)
You are doing it wrong ... [source]
Computer games took a lot of inspiration from early D&D and the like. Although one could argue that level-progression and hit points and even that specific way to tell stories would have happened naturally sooner or later digitally as soon as people started writing games for that new medium (and it would be very interesting to see what that would have looked like), it can't be denied that some of the most popular and influential tropes and even games in the early dawn of computer gaming had been made possible because of D&D.*

Nowadays it's very much it's own thing, yet retro-games are still very popular and digital gaming has a highly innovative independent scene creating all kinds of old school and new games, while online gaming made digital games more of a social phenomenon (with good and bad results, I might add). The benefit of having mass appeal is that the fringes are also well seated, which allows for lots and lots of innovation ... What I'm saying, is, if it works, it stays and the digital interpretations of what the early role playing games made work, holds true even today in very many different forms and that should make you think.

Alright, mid-post summary: I'd argue that a huge part of successful computer gaming was inspired, nay, even leaning on the development of D&D right before the dawn of the personal computer and the gaming that was made possible with that. The newer medium emulates, reflects and interprets the older one ever since, proving simply by vote of popularity that having an active part in a narrative can be entertaining within very strict and abstract restrains as long as the means of interaction are fun, engaging and challenging. We furthermore can take the insights garnered there and apply them to our hobby to some degree, which should help us to gain an understanding how narratives work and, ultimately (because that is what the post should be about), how to fabricate Good Endings in our stories.

A word on how repetition intensifies an experience

No, I'm not talking about learning Latin or something like that, although the principles at work there should be the same here to some extent (with another purpose, though). This is about one of the main tools with which computer games intensify and manifest their narratives.

If you have played any amount of computer games in your life, you are aware of the vicious cycles of repetition necessary in many games to achieve the level of proficiency necessary to move forward. Play, die, repeat. Now, while a player needs (to be encouraged) to go through the motions again and again to see where a game is leading to, it is the very act of doing so that makes them appreciate the story of a game even more, because the more you repeat a segment or scene in a game, the more details you will be made aware of.

So beyond the very obvious pattern of what you need to do to advance to the next segment, there is a deeper understanding of said segment that only reveals itself by playing it over and over again. Ideally there is nuance, and, as the player sets himself into relation with the design that is manifesting, a story. You discover little secrets or new ways to interact with the game and you internalize the artwork, rhythm and sound of a game that way (like you'd learn Latin vocabulary, but way more fun)**.

While the implementation of the concept described above only lends itself loosely to role playing ("saving the game" as an option really didn't make a lasting impact in ttrpg***, thus creating loops like that is difficult), there is something to learn about segmenting games and rhythm and distinct narrative framing (or whatever the equivalent to level design would be called in rpgs).

See what I'm getting at? [source]
I've dabbled a bit that concept in the past and found that the loops a DM needs to create are clusters of words he wants to resonate in the narrative to an extent that it ends up having a lasting impression on the players. That way it will be part of the manifesting narrative (interested parties may start here exploring that idea further). The terms we use in our games work like that, btw., using constant repetition until the terms become part of a group's sociolect and "color" the experience (prime example would be the D&D terminology that is nowadays influential enough to appear in popular culture).

With having those "loops" in place like that, we can form or establish a pattern (a collection of words supporting a certain means the DM is working towards, going from basic connections players need to make to atmospheric vocabulary enhancing those little "segments" a narrative forms). And with a pattern (you guessed it), we can produce endings.

Endings in computer games, then

The obvious end gamers will experience over and over again is the classic "game over", and there is something to be said about that. A close second would be the end we chose, and I'll start with that since it immediately relates to our hobby.

I'm pretty sure I'm not alone when I'm saying that I have more games**** started and never touched again than I have games I played for any serious amount of time or even games I actually finished (and games I really, really aim to invest some serious amount of time into ...). That, as well, is a form of ending. You start a game and you just keep dying ... that could be all the story you can get out of the game and moving on is part of that.

Even more detailed: the mechanic didn't do it for you, the game is full of bugs, you name it, and you will always find an "end" describing why you stopped trying your hand at a game. The interesting part here is, that we will find the proper answer if our interaction with something manifests towards a less satisfying experience. As the German proverb goes, you'd more often than not chose an end in terror than terror without ending ... Which is to say, endings like that will most likely be bad by definition and circumstances.

The "game over" screen, on the other hand, can also be an encouragement to try again and feed that loop we talked about above. It is a bad ending designed to enhance the good endings a game has to offer. You are allowed to keep playing the game if you manage to overcome its obstacles and your award is seeing more of the game, or gaining achievements and the benefits of getting better at a game as your character and your technique advance.

[source]
Now, the crowning achievement of playing a computer game would be to play it to completion. But well designed-games will give a player that feeling in advance by having (and communicating!) distinctive segments that can be completed.

Succesfull games lead players through their story in a way that lets lots of little successes and failures accumulate to one big narrative and a satisfying conclusion. Failure is designed into those games to enhance the feeling of success and accomplishment and hard work should be awarded as well as ingenuity. 

Up to this point we were strictly talking about how to manufacture patterns that allow a proper opening for an ending and how our engagement with a game may constitute a bad end in itself. That'd be all we need to talk about here, as the one thing that could still make or break a game would be the execution of the end of a game. The part where the player loses control over the game and sees what happens next.

In computer games that can actually be rather arbitrary or short. Mario needs to rescue the princess, so guess what happens in the end. That sort of thing. However, even simple things deserve to be done right and even the best game can leave a bad taste in your mouth, if the end rubs you wrong or insults you or makes fun of you or tries to sell you the next part or simply seems off (here, have 50 examples where endings went wrong in video games ... with spoilers, obviously).

That said, what I'm able to say about bad writing should already be said in Part 1 (which makes this, if you haven't read it just yet (and read so far starting with Part 2, you rare soul, you), a great opportunity to go there and do so real quick before we come to a conclusion of sorts here).

The Good End

This was always meant to be a series of posts about how to tell better stories in our games and how to bring them to positive or at least satisfying ends. And isn't there always more to say. I have a feeling that we only scratched the surface here before even talking about the subject proper. However, sometimes all you need is conjecture, comparison and transfer. Going at it this way has me thinking that this already covered a lot of ground nonetheless.

As far as concrete advice goes, I'd have to say, it had to be very abstract to catch it all without writing another post just as long as the last two. Abstract works for me, I guess, and the advice I'd condense this towards would look something like this:
  • Manifest a pattern the characters can interpret and analyze and relate to (inspiration for this would be, for instance, C. G. Jung's ideas on archetypes and Daoism, to give but two ... there's definitely more). 
  • Create little loops to make segments of the narrative distinguishable from other segments. Related to that, you should communicate the transitions and offer closure ("You are leaving now the Forest of the Floating Feet and enter The Valley of a Thousand Farts. You don't think the Goblins will follow you here ...", like, keep it distinguishable and vary your vocabulary). The system you use should support this notion.
  • Include little advancements and victories that accumulate towards something bigger. Little "Boss Fights" (or hyping a fight up like that) could work or gaining valuable knowledge.
  • Allow narrative awards to enter the narrative loops to enhance the level of engagement ("You are now called Guardian of the Forest and may wear the title with pride!" or something like that ... let the players have as many of those as you dare without making the sum of them meaningless, maybe change and advance some already established ones later in the game).
  • Allow failure as part of the narrative, as some bad endings can make good endings better (have a character die every once in a while, if opportunity arises, have players learn from their mistakes and introduce (fun) consequences for bad rolls). Every Yin needs its Yang, baby.
  • Don't offer interpretations of what it all means unless it is necessary to give players a hint into the right direction. Let what manifests in the story stand on its own, because if you have to explain it, you've already done it wrong. Show, don't tell, folks.
  • Don't force it, don't rush it, don't push an agenda down your players throats. If the pattern emerges, the end will reveal itself naturally. Always.
And that's it, as far as I'm concerned. Getting more specific about a topic like that, would necessarily mean to get very specific. However, finding your own way through this is a very important process in becoming a proper DM. Sometimes all you should need is a direction, so let's leave it at that.

Final Thoughts

There is a couple of loose ends left hanging, I guess. It is a broad subject and if anything, I can only try to encourage readers to come to their own conclusions. What I wrote in that last paragraph above is true for everything in life. The world surrounding us can only give hints and directions, but you have to go the distance yourself to come to conclusions.

Another Daoist truism is: if the pupil is ready, the master appears. Which, to me at least, always meant that, if we keep looking and learning, what we need will be there for us to find. Sounds a bit like  a bail-out, but I think it's a reassuring thought. The universe abides.

I'd have loved to go a bit more toe to toe with computer games. Comparing and analyzing them towards ttrpgs and the way we play game is an incredibly rich subject, from how we interact with games to design innovations there and the implications here. So. Much. Stuff! Like, would it be possible to write the equivalent of a Jump and Run or a FPS as a role playing game. What would that look like. And those are only the fun subjects from the top of my head ...

Computer games will eventually drift away from role playing as a medium that a comparison will get very difficult or very different (if I were to guess, I'd say it'll compare closer to LARP in the very near future). But given the amount of material that is already produced right now, it will take decades to evaluate that output before there is any need to check what else is happening.

Writing this made me realize (and a bit sad) that I might need to reduce my, let's call it, fast-media input. I loved to chill back and see a good movie or tv show, but the more I keep scrolling and scrolling through the streaming media offerings, the more I think it is all the same, which can be nice if you haven't seen anything it (the benefit of youth, I guess), but it gets harder and harder to find that innovation that keeps me inspired and creating.

The positive side-effect of this would be that I end up reading and writing more. And I'm telling you, it's a freeing experience (I can't stress this enough: books don't have a direct social media interaction and no advertisement ...). Musings on that should be part of another post, I guess (working title in my head is 'Learning to read again' ...).

Thank you for reading all of this. I hope you enjoyed reading it and that you took something with you after investing all that time. If you like to share any thoughts on any of that, I'd love to hear them, so please, comment away.

Here's a whole slide-share about archetypes [source]

* I try to avoid writing footnotes like that, but I can stray only so far, so have this related but random observation hidden down here: computer games are a billion dollar industry, far more powerful than music and tv put together. Gaming is strong like that. The great benefit of being THAT important, is that people actually invest into research and there is lots and lots of science about games one could check out. That's not for debate. However, look how weak it still is represented at universities. Now consider how much money is in ttrpg and what you get is ... people like me doing a hack-job academic discourse in their free time? Nah, it's a bit better than that, but not by much. Also of note: all the bad business practices in digital gaming are highly adaptable in our analogue variants, with fewer means to do anything about it. Big corp just tends to force D&D in the direction where the money is, corrupting the core concepts of role playing towards something more "marketable"  ... Anyway, I started to slide into the D&D-as-theme-park development and that's definitely too much of a digression here. Moving on.

** Incidentally that is why gamification of the workplace is such a success. You can make repetitive actions fun that way ... Which is only a good thing if the thought appeals to you to be a "level 34 facility manager with a Broom of Lightning" or something like that.

*** Although I have seen it done in a rpg called Rune. There you could spend xp to "save" the current version of your character sheet. I thought it was a nice touch for what the game was: a rpg game based on a computer game. Beyond that, I've seen it done in SF rpg like Paranoia (which introduced the idea of having a clone you could use in case you die). Beyond that I'm not aware of any games that went in that direction. Not even board games, for that matter. 

**** ... and books and tv series. It is a very common phenomenon.


Friday, October 4, 2019

Opinion: Feast of Legends (Fast Food goes Dice)

I saw this, saw everyone lose their shit and thought I'd throw in my 2 cents: prolific fast food chain Wendy's published a complete RPG with campaign, clocking out at 97 pages and is giving it away for free. This just up front, I'm having a blast right now. Genius. Beautiful. And rotten to the core ... I have opinions on that. Let's have at it.

Not a review ...

I've heard people state that this is a complete rule book and functioning. That is, to say the least, bullshit. No DM advice, no play examples and you only need to read the first page of the adventure/campaign to see that this is hollow and bad (also full of advertisement). That said, you could drop this into almost any D&D derivative of your choice (3e/Pathfinder/Basic Fantasy seem great fits) and it should work (no guaranties, though ... nobody says that this had seen testing for balance or what have you).

Might need some work, but could be fun. Maybe. Once. And you have to have experience DMing.

[source]
So it looks nice and crisp. Proper layout, nice illustrations, inspiring maps. It is great at mimicking to be a complete game and yet, it is decidedly not. So, no, I'm not investing time in writing a proper review. This is an artifact and in its understanding on what makes a rpg tick just as deep as you'd expect from someone selling pressed sugar mixed with sad excuses for meat as food. Compared to proper RPG this is what a hamburger is to Beef Wellington.

As I said, it is an artifact, at best. Something that is nice to have. I'd buy this as a book, just to have it in my collection. A RPG it is not, though.

Here's why it's funny

This coincides with another article I've read today, something about why successful subcultures are doomed. It describes how innovation draws consumers and sociopaths until a subculture goes full bloom in mainstream and goes away to die afterwards. I don't necessarily agree with the piece (which should be discussed in another post, I guess), but it gets the basics right and this here is a great example what the process could manifest like. 

I admit, 'funny' is a bit of a stretch. However, it has to be obvious at this point that this is nothing else but a marketing ploy to get some (well deserved, imo) buzz. It's well played and it works. The reactions are as you would expect: people hate it, people embrace it and the more money oriented folks already offer twitch sessions. This draws flies like an old burger in an alley (pardon the bun).

Way more funny, though, is that they treat our hobby like publishers already do for years now. Nice to look at, some variation to well known ideas and a new-game-hype every other week. Just a buck, just a little kickstarter, just something to put into the shelf and forget. We brought this unto us, and we deserve it ... It is how those things tend to play out, and yet, there is an irony to it all.

Here's why it's not funny ...

It's not all fun and giggles, though. We not only have to see this for what it is (a fun promo for unhealthy food), we also have to understand that this is IN NO WAY, SHAPE OR FORM different to what D&D under Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro is: a vehicle to sell product. Sure, you don't have to buy a burger in real life to gain a bonus in the game, but the principles at work are very much the same (and junk food has been a huge part of the gaming experience, so ...).

Splat books, miniatures, editions, merchandise ... the rules are designed with selling additional material in mind. Arguably more so than actually being playable (high level gameplay from D&D 3e onward, if you need an example). D&D's triumphant parade into mainstream shows more and more how they need to divert from the original concepts that spawned our little hobby towards something more .... superficial. It becomes something like a theme park of an adventure compared to the real thing. The difference between reading War and Peace and getting it retold to you by a 3-year old ...

I need to stop. Either way, this is where it's at.

It's not all bad (some will say)

If someone enters the hobby because Wendy's gave it some exposure, it's all for the better. It also does show others that variations to D&D are possible, which is just as well, considering D&D becomes more and more synonymous for RPG in general (while changing and watering down significantly for mainstream appeal ... see above). In all that, the ad is a good (and bright) marker and reminder what mindless consumption will lead to.

That's the morale, if you need one. Big Money will have its way with RPGs, if we want that or not. And while it's certainly good for most people, as it offers new and exciting forms of mindless entertainment, it leaves those behind who took the whole thing a bit more seriously. As with all dying subcultures.

If you need to know what you can do about this, I'd say: built on that to be prepared for the decline. Innovation is what creates new spaces, as they say, and when the whole fad has run its course and D&D is nothing more than a theme park, those looking for more will find plenty. And that's the nice thought I want to close this with.


Guess what I'll have today [source]

Sunday, September 15, 2019

The Good End, Part 1

It's rare these days that I wake up with time on my hands and have a blog post waiting at my fingertips. I still didn't for this, as I really should be writing something else today. However, it actually is a topic that occurred to me on several occasions this year alone and I guess I have an opinion on it. So the topic for today is: what makes a good end for stories and what are the machinations for it? Let's see where this will be going.

Lots of bad endings ...

The appliance of this topic for role playing games are obvious. However, where it really hit home for me the last couple of months was with a book that read really, really well for all its 1000 pages and fucked up really hard in the last 50 pages or so. I felt betrayed. It was the cruelest thing. Up until that end I would have recommended it to friends. How the author decided to end it, though, killed the whole experience for me.

Maybe I should go into an analysis of why I thought that ending was bad (or what book we are talking about), but for now, a specific example of something that is not universally hated as bad would make the argument anecdotal and that would be of no use here, right? You all know what I mean (if people are interested, I can share specifics in the comments, though).

That said, there are a bazillion examples in pop culture right now, most popular among them would be the last episodes of Game of Thrones. So bad, that millions of people signed a petition to re-shot that hot mess. Or the end they are producing for the original Star Wars saga. That would (arguably) be another great example (my guess is they'll kill it for good with The Rise of Skywalker). The third season of Glow also qualifies as it had NOTHING to do with the original show and was a waste of time so cringe-worthy, it cemented my decision to cancel my Netflix account for good.
[source]
My impression is that this is a trend for the worse right now. Maybe the decades-long pop cultural rehashing of the same old themes finally proves to be a downward spiral (who would have guessed?). Or the capitalist impulse to always produce new content actually forces creatives to start at ground-zero zeitgeist every time and hinders innovation in a way that popular stories stopped growing in mainstream and stagnation always carries the danger of running foul (or rather, nothing stagnates ever ... if it's not moving for the better, it starts moving for the worse).

Whatever the reason, it is a phenomenon worth analyzing or at least talking about. I get weary when I start seeing a new tv show and like it, because the end could ruin it for good. It's gotten so easy to produce a frame that makes content just, well, bingeable, that we not only created a new word for the process, we also started neglecting the messages stories transport and the end is always the tell in that regard.

Going by the above, there are several reasons for endings to be received as "bad" (or even where endings begin, for that matter) and all have the obvious common theme that the [drum roll] Suspension of Disbelief is disrupted to a degree, where the experience ends up being disappointing.

The good end no one liked

Let's start with the low hanging fruits, the movies or books or tv shows that run over long times and maybe even with lots of time between parts or seasons. Something you will see or read over long periods of time. Notable examples would be the Matrix trilogy, Star Wars Episodes 1 to 3, the third season of Twin Peaks or the last books of Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea books (originally a trilogy, the author went ahead and wrote a sequel 6 years later, where she tried to re-write the original and changed the tone significantly).

And people don't like it. Or rather, popular opinion is against them although, in those cases, the results aren't necessarily bad, just different. If something popular has too much time to fester in the pop cultural mindset, the perception of it changes. Or maybe ownership of the ideas changes. The artist gives something to the public and it keeps developing from there on.

So when the artist picks up a story years after it's initial release, he'll have to challenge the new beast that the story is with his own interpretation. There's a couple of popular examples where this worked once or twice (Terminator 2 and Aliens 2 come to mind), but usually, the result is hated and only reception over time will show if a sequel like that has merit or not.

In a sense, it means that the sequel is banned to the fringes again, away from mainstream, and people willing to invest the time to analyze and talk about a sequel like that, will dig for the nuggets and carry them back into mainstream consciousness.

Staring down mainstream since 1990  [source]
The Episodes 1 to 3, for instance, weren't as bad as the initial reaction may have you believe, the Matrix trilogy is a coherent story, just not the one people wanted and Lynch's Twin Peaks is so far away from the mainstream perception of it, that it will take years to digest what he did in season 3 and Le Guin changed as a person and arguably didn't write a sequel but used the world of Earthsea instead to express her new world view, but reception was good nonetheless.

See, these works have merit, but you have to take a closer look, you have to work with the artist here. Some people think, that just because they consumed a work often enough that they can consume it without investing further thought, it must follow that sequels will be just as easily digestible. Those are, however, two different versions of reception. Maybe this deserves a little excursion ...

Consuming versus conscious reception

This is the most important distinction you will have in this argument. It's the two ends of a spectrum we succinctly call entertainment. It describes not the level of commitment (as people can get very committed about just brainless consumption), but the level of analysis you are willing to invest into something.

There is no judgment either, sometimes you just need to see a well-scripted show about baking. Done right, it is a form of meditation. Or you like just aspects of something, so you see it just for those bits. I've had run shows in the background, giving them maybe 20% attention while doing something else, just to get the whole picture.

However, when I sit down to see something and I like what I see, I tend to be on the other side of the spectrum. I will give it my full attention, not chatting, not  checking my mobile every ten seconds, I'm all over the thing: analyzing, connecting, interpreting.

The mindset with which you go into the experience is what will form your opinion on it (consciously or not). So if you go to see the next Tarantino with the expectation that you will get a rumination of Pulp Fiction, or if you go to see what Tarantino did next, makes worlds of a difference (and is a stigma many authors and writers have to overcome after their first success).

The problem is, we tend to fall more to the consumption side of the spectrum the more familiar we made ourselves with a certain oeuvre. That's where, in its extremes, fandom makes an entrance, that's where stories change ownership, in a sense. Music is another good example for this, with a way higher overturn. Once a musician is pinned down to be successful at a certain type of music, they'll have a hard time doing something else with the same success.

We need to be aware of this pattern to understand how reception works and what a response to something means in its context. Or rather, how the level of introspection and objectivity changes the perception of a work and therefor has to be judged within that spectrum. In other words, trust the critique that shows thought beyond the assumption what an artist should have done to succeed as he did with his previous work.

You don't even need to know where the artist is in his life right now or what person they are, you just have to accept that they most likely moved on and will express that in their work with the form they found to express themselves. Only then you can have an attempt at a proper interpretation if the work is successful or not (not commercially, though, that's a different story yet again ...). It's also a good way to create a position towards other opinions you may encounter.

Your perception will furthermore change over time, obviously, so there is  lot to be taken into account before getting a true grip on what works and what doesn't (for you and in general).

Okay, end of excursion. Where were we ...

The bad end

A bad end constitutes that independently of where you are at the spectrum described above, you end up being disappointed. Like, you could be just on the consumption side of the spectrum and it rubs you wrong for some reason. But then again, as you shift your perception towards a more conscious reception, you may find yourself coming to an understanding after all. If that still fails, however, you might have a bad ending on your hand, getting worse as others chime in to express the same opinion (because to a degree this is still about taste and level of cognition).

Ultimately, the general insight if something is bad (or good) is the result of multiple shared efforts over time, especially if the continued progress of a work is geared towards innovation instead of mirroring the success of a former work.

The question is, now, what we can learn from decades, nay, centuries of documented reception. Because we don't always have to start at the beginning, we can (should) stand on the shoulders of those who successfully took a closer look and shared their insights. We can see what went wrong and take a stab at guessing what went wrong and where. Considering all the above, we can also make fair assumptions as to what constitutes a bad ending in general and why.

I've named some popular examples at the beginning. We also see J. K. Rowling right now revisioning her past work for the worse. It's a good example how not knowing when to stop can also make for a bad ending.

Common themes here are (1) rewriting of the established work (in a sense the attempt of the artist to prevent his story from being changed or advanced by the public), (2) the ignorance of the established which then changes the experience significantly (a really common theme there is establishing characters as intelligent and then having them make very dumb decisions, another example would be ignoring established archetypes ... Han Solo, anyone?), and a third big mistake would be (3) to make the final message of a story a lie.

The third point is the most tricky one and the hardest to catch. It's those endings that just "don't ring true", as the saying goes. It's where the antagonist is beyond humanity and acts in a way that fits, for instance, an effort of propaganda (How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a sad example for this).

It's also when the Suspense of Disbelief is kicked to the curve and the end is not authentic in the way the story was set up. It's where external forces (like the studio or organisations) change the arc of a story for, say, commercial reasons (like, every cut down version of a film ever) or to fit a certain ideology (Disney had Rogues One changed and re-shot significantly after they felt that the original result had been too much of a war movie).

[source]
The thing is, we grow up with stories, among them stories that are successful for thousands of years and there are reasons for that success. We recognize as a collective whole if something is worthy or not, and with more success the more time we have to take a look. You see right there the default line of failure: to be commercially successful you have to turn stories fast without paying too much moolah for it.

Rather new, inexperienced writers than seasoned but expensive writers, rather starting from scratch and hoping for a quick success than building and expanding something established with (risky) innovation ... I could go on. And if something works, it needs to stay the same, it needs to be "All Ages", as if it is a good thing that stories can't grow with us.

There are so many misconceptions how stories have to work just based on capitalist assumptions that favor a short success over a true success, it shaped whole industries, and we see it fail more and more often. As I said, over time those things will be recognized as lies (or half-truths, if you will).

But it gets worse. You have read so far, but it was all to set up this one, final point (I've already hinted towards it): we have become so well versed in making things easily consumable. The right filters, the right music, the right tone, the right people, a symphony of the recognizable REGARDLESS OF THE STORY BEING TOLD. And that's very dangerous. Look at Harry Potter (glorifying a superiour elite as the better people) or Glow (turning full woke) or 13 Reasons Why (glorifying mental illness) or Ready Player One (blatant nostalgia cash grab) or even the Marvel movies (idk ... empty and unproductive entertainment to print money, I guess). Just lean back and let it happen. It doesn't matter what we are telling you, just enjoy the how.

That's a really ugly trend and a lot of ugly endings for lots and lots of famous franchises. Right now everything that Disney touches seems to turn to shit, Netflix seems to be in trouble for spending shit-loads of money for inferiour quality, Doctor Who is losing its fanbase, mainstream comics have a hard time right now ... I could go on and on and it always comes down to bad storytelling and bad endings.

Anyway, I guess I made my point.

The good end

It's been a long time that I went off the rails for that much of text without having a clear picture of the pay-off it all could have. Of course we are still talking games here and how to make the endings in the stories we tell more satisfying. The whole tirade above is to be understood as an attempt to show the patterns that form opinions about stories as well as misconceptions about creating them in differentiation to what we can know and should use to tell stories. As I said before, we don't need to invent the wheel everytime.

So, with having all that on the table, we can talk about how to create good endings. Or better yet, how to bring a story to one of its potential conclusions ...

Holy shit, I don't know how to end this. The irony.

I thought this'd work out for sure ... [source]
Actually, that part deserves a second post, because we need to come at this from another angle when talking about games. For one, with role playing games the ones creating the story are also the audience and what constitutes a bad end for a lot of people could work for a select group of friends. The focus shifts and with that the problems or how to address them.

This post, however, should help you recognizing bad endings and bad storytelling and how all that connects or how you stand towards all of it and conclusions you could draw from that. I guess that is something (if I actually managed it). If you have any thoughts on this, I'd be happy to hear them.

Read Part 2 here.