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Musings of a Would-Be Game Designer

Show, Don't Tell

by Mike Martinez
Dec 18,2003


Musings of a Would-Be Game Designer

By Mike Martinez

Show, Don't Tell

"I say again, what ship is that?" Lieutenant Weatherby shouted through the speaking horn. "Heave to and identify, or we will fire a broadside into your wretched hull!"

"That's more than enough, Mr. Weatherby," Captain Morrow of HMS Swiftsure said in a gently chiding voice. "No need to be so theatrical."

"My apologies, sir," the young fourth lieutenant said, looking suitably chastised as he tipped his tricorner hat to the captain. Keeping station over Ganymede for six weeks was beginning to wear on the crew, and Morrow had hoped Swiftsure would soon be relieved. For while the Jovian system was certainly the most beautiful part of the Void to sail, blockade work was dry duty. Except, perhaps, for this moment.

"French tricolor, sir!" Weatherby shouted. "She's heading for us and turning to leeward!"

"Mr. Collingwood, signal the fleet, and have a chase gun place a shot across her bow, if you please," Morrow said calmly to his first lieutenant. "And do make sure that it's across her bow, not in it."

"Aye, sir," the seasoned officer responded quietly, then raised his voice. "Signal lights! Send 'Enemy ship spotted!' Chase guns! Put a shot across her bow! And a dozen lashes if you hit her by mistake!" Within moments, a boom echoed out from under the quarterdeck of the British warship, and Morrow and his officers turned to see the glowing, alchemical shot fly just past the French bowspirit.

"A bit close, but well done," Morrow said as a puff of white smoke erupted from the forward chase gun of the French ship. A few seconds later, a glowing shot streaked along the starboard side of Swiftsure, just missing her planesails. "Very well, then," Morrow said, thin-lipped and grim. "Mr, Collingwood, run out the guns and prepare to fire a rolling broadside, aft to fore, at my command."

As his officers barked out their orders, Morrow noted that the Frenchman carried at least seventy guns - an even match for his own ship. The doctor best have enough curatives on hand, the captain thought. Perhaps a few words for the men.

"Swiftsure!," Morrow bellowed from the quarterdeck. "The French are once again upon us! As your fathers did, and their fathers before them, we shall show them today what it means to fight an Englishman!"

The crew's cheer echoed into space as the two ships drew closer under the unblinking gaze of Jupiter's red, angry eye.

This is one of the first pieces of introductory fiction I ever wrote for Spacebuckler and it's stuck with me throughout the development of the game. I like it because I think it evokes some of the major themes in the game. It communicates the concept of warships battling in space -- and not just any old space, but in our very own Solar System. It shows that despite the odd setting, there's a grounding in our actual history, what with British and French warships going at each other. It mentions glowing, alchemical cannon fire -- another sign of something unusual that will set the stage for further exploration of the Great Work.

For about 400 words, I think it does some pretty heavy lifting.

As I've researched the wide variety of d20 System games, settings and supplements in preparation for my own game, I've noted a rather distinct lack of really top notch game-related fiction. Indeed, there are a few small company supplements seem to have abandoned the art of writing entirely in favor of bundles of game mechanics based on a common theme.

I may be a rookie at writing games, but I've made my living as a writer for more than 10 years now, and the ripe old saying, "Show me, don't tell me," is old and ripe for a darn good reason. It works.

Give Me a Sense of Something

If I've done my job right, and I'd like to think that I have, the reader reaches the end of the above passage and has an image in his head of two 18th century warships sailing toward each other in the shadow of Jupiter. Hopefully, there's also a notion that something really dramatic is about to go down. (If not, tell me now so I can go back to writing nonfiction!)

Of course, ship-to-ship combat is but one aspect of the Spacebuckler setting, but it's a fairly important one, and it's one I wanted to highlight in the book - this piece currently is slated for the introduction to our Empires and Societies chapter, as it depicts two of the major Earth colonial powers clashing over the newly independent Ganymedean colonies.

I'd also like to think that we get to know a few characters, at least in broad strokes. We have the young, nervous Lieutenant Weatherby and the seasoned, calm but grim Captain Morrow. Archetypes? Absolutely. You're writing a game, not a novel. We don't need to get to know these people - we only need to get a feel for the world they live in.

I was reading a passage in another d20 System supplement describing the effect of a wizard's spell. The description of how the Flame Strike was called down was certainly detailed - practically a play-by-play of every lick of flame - but the fiction didn't give me a bit of feeling for what it was like to cast that spell. Or, more appropriately, to call down the wrath of your god against your enemies. I mean, can you imagine the kind of faith that would take? How would it feel to be a channel of divine power? At the very least, you know it's got to be a rush.

Sadly, with few exceptions, the most evocative writing in d20 System roleplaying simply evokes the "Oh, shit!" response of adventurers as they discover some fresh, impossible challenge before them. And then they start brawling. That tells me nothing new, because I've already been there in my own games. But I've never had someone really give me a sense of what it would be to stand in a fantasy character's shoes. I've never read an RPG that gave me a hint of what it's like to be a three-foot-tall halfling in human society, or what it's like to be an elf with a lifespan measured in centuries. What would go through your mind when you have to hold the citadel gate against an orc horde out for blood? How would it change you if you had the power to cast Lightning Bolts at your enemies?

Bringing Evocative Writing to Your Game

I think, in both a business sense and in an artistic way, you can really add value to any game by adding good, solid evocative fiction writing to your work. The more you draw people into your world, the more likely they'll stick around for a while.

So how do you write good game fiction? I don't pretend to be an expert - I'm sure someone will probably take issue with the above piece, and that's OK with me. It's a free country. But I do feel as though I've learned some things developing Spacebuckler, and I hope this can help somebody else.

First of all, you should already know the kind of themes you want to explore in your game. Spacebuckler is all about heroism, exploration, the dark corners of the Solar System, brave swashbucklers, pirates, romance and adventure. It's bigger than life, and the fiction reflects this.

What about other games? I've always felt Vampire: the Masquerade and the other White Wolf games had some of the best evocative fiction in the business - and occasionally, some of the most hackneyed as well. When dealing with themes of mortality, morality, angst and darkness, it seems there's a fine line between really evocative and way over the top. But when the Wolf is on...I've literally gotten chills from a few pieces.

Back to your game. Once you have a list of three or four major themes, think about ways those themes would be explored in an adventure. If your game has an element of political treachery, then an adventure could involve the overthrow of a baron or the disgrace of a king. If you were doing a game based on film noir, then an old fashioned detective story would work.

Next, think of something characters might do in that adventure. In the above examples, characters may be involved in inciting peasants against the baron, finding out the king's dirty secrets or trailing a socialite to see if she's cheating on her husband. Already, we have three archetypical scenes, ready to be populated and set in motion.

As I mentioned before, we don't need a heck of a lot of backstory on characters - all you're doing is setting a mood, not necessarily telling an ongoing story. Perhaps the agitator is a young, charismatic wizard, trying to get the peasants to stand up to an evil theocracy. Perhaps a shift rogue is selling information about the king's mistress. And perhaps the private detective will discover a classic film noir twist - the socialite's husband now wants the detective dead because he saw too much... but what did he see?

And there you have it - theme, adventure, scene, character. And you're off.

Of course, it's never that simple. So I have a handful of extra hints on writing game fiction. Think of your piece as the scene from a movie of your game - a 30-second snippet of a larger story. That scene should make the theoretical moviegoer want to keep watching - or, in your case, keep the reader interested in your game.

Also, please...let's avoid the use of really large words. I believe the biggest word I have in my piece is "chastened." (The nautical terms don't count...they're just as evocative of the sailing aspect of the setting and, besides, I'm tossing in a nautical glossary.) Using SAT vocabulary words doesn't mean you're a good writer. It just means you studied SAT vocabulary lists while the rest of us were out smoking cigarettes in the Dunkin' Donuts parking lot.

Got an image of young gamer geeks smoking in the Dunkin' Donuts lot? Good.

I want to thank the folks who e-mailed me after our last column, in which we announced the delay of the Spacebuckler release from this month until the spring. I'm grateful for the wonderful support and encouragement that everybody sent along. It may take a little longer, but we're going to have a great game when we're done.

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