Intrepid Stories: Too Close to the Sun

Intrepid City 0:2 TOO CLOSE TO THE SUN By Ryan M. Danks The XS–9 rocketed out of Earth’s atmosphere. Propelled by prototype plasma engines, the experimental air/space hybrid plane was the pride of Valiant Industries’ R&D department, which they claim is light years ahead of their competitors. Colonel Cole Stewart leaned into the cockpit and watched… Continue reading Intrepid Stories: Too Close to the Sun

The Never-Ending Adventure

So many roleplaying games hook with the idea of being able to tell stories like our favorite TV shows but then stick to tried and true methods of telling open-and-close story arcs from novels or movies.

Now, to be clear, that’s not a flaw, per se, but I don’t believe it hits on the idea of how to tell a story like a TV show.

The Old TV Storytelling Method
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In older TV shows you have a villain/monster of the week. The protagonists defeat said villain, only to have another one to look forward to next week. The season finale often features a super-thin plot that supposedly ties all the villains of the season together, doing an okay job at making the season feel cohesive.

However, it’s often not the storytelling that endears us to these shows (except in the case of the really good ones). Most cult fans of the old method are usually in it for the unique characters, situations, or ideologies.

The New TV Storytelling Method
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Like most forms, the serialized form of television has grown over the years. In recent decades, the “villain/monster of the week” format has not necessarily been replaced, but has been enhanced with “villain/monster/situation of the season.”

Today’s TV shows often introduce the audience to a particular villain in the season premiere, who escapes capture or death only to become more dangerous as the season goes one–often meeting their end in the season finale. These stories feel more cohesive than the old “villain/monster of the week” stories because we can see the driving force behind the weekly situations (and often they’re just that); we may even begin cheering the villain on if they’re written particularly well.

In fact, today’s audiences have a name for the “villain/monster of the week” storylines: Filler Episodes. If a story doesn’t move the season story arc forward then we often consider it a fun romp through the setting, but otherwise unnecessary. (If the show were a novel, that chapter would have been cut.)

How Roleplaying Games Do Itdungeons-and-dragons-movie

Since modern RPGs got their start through the dramatization of miniature wargaming, which is by its very essence a “villain of the week” kind of thing, it is no surprise that RPG campaigns are strung together “monster of the week stories. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with that. MotW games are so popular that games have been creating with that very title. And they’re popular for good reason: they fit the session format (particularly one-shots).

But so many games fit this format that there are very few that have adopted recent methods of TV storytelling (which is the most relevant form of storytelling for our genre). Fate Core is one such game, with its campaign threat aspects and emphasis on the major milestone for large-scale character advancement. But most Fate games I’ve played in still use the MotW format (again, not bad, but I’m suggesting something different here).

The Never-Ending Adventure

Not that Neverending Story
Not that Neverending Story

Building sweeping stories like the TV shows of today is relatively easy to do. I don’t think it’s for every group, nor every game (it’s a terrible format for one-shots, for instance). But for a long-standing game that lasts years (how rare those are, at least in my experience) a web of intricate plots and sweeping story arcs that end after another story arc has already begun can add suspense to motivate players for future games. (And I’m not talking about the “plot hook for next week” method.)

Creating a campaign of complex, interlocking stories is a simple as creating a big goal or villainous plot (one of each is better) and outline different milestones for them. Once play has begun, and a milestone on a goal or plot has been reached, then create another one. You can continue this for years on end. No breaks in the narrative, no “stopping points” in the campaign, but you can still zoom in on the immediate situations.

And if your campaign does end, your players are likely to act as though their favorite TV show had just been canceled. (They might even start an online petition to have Netflix pick it up.)

Some pointers:

  • Vary the number of milestones you have for different story arcs. And reserve the best rewards, and worst consequences, for the longer story arcs, thus adding a sense of importance to them. (Only one long story arc at a time; the main arc of the campaign at that point, no other arc should be more than half the number of milestones as the main arc.)
  • Start with a big villain who has a part in an extra long story arc. And before that villain meets its demise, introduce another one as a seemingly minor villain that steps up to “big bad guy” level in the same session that the former villain is finally defeated.
  • Focus each milestone on a situation, and use those situations for your games. So your players are facing the situation after situation, but with the main villain or situation linking them. This is where it starts to feel like a TV show.
  • Alternate between long and short story arcs. Use convincing reasons why the main story arc is “busy” at the moment (the short story arc being time sensitive and carrying a hefty consequence for ignoring it is usually a good reason). This is your “filler” episode.

What are some ways that you string your campaigns together to keep them interesting for years on end?

Your Fandom Opinions Are “Correct”

Few discussions can drive a wedge between nerd friends than one person admitting they liked the Star Wars prequels.

Why is it that fandom is so terrible to those minority members who like unpopular things? Why do we feel the need to be gatekeepers of the things we love or love to hate; dissenters be damned?

Isn’t it possible that the minority could be right?

My Introduction to Fandom and Pop-Culture

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My childhood was steeped in a particular concept of Superman. I was introduced to comic books in 1992 with the X-Men cartoon series on Fox. That started a (very expensive) fascination with superheroes.

I owned quite a few Superman books, but never really got into the character until Doomsday killed him. A lot of people didn’t like the four Supermen that replaced him, but I felt they were fresh and, in the case of Steel, really damn cool! Superman, for me at the time, was old and boring, but Steel was a complicated character who could be challenged by writers in ways that Superman could not. I dug the character when a lot of people back then just called to have their old boring Supes back. But when he did finally come back…I liked him. The stories they told in that post-death era were fantastic. And the early 2000’s storylines were amazing!

There was also the (un)healthy consumption of Justice League cartoons, Superman animated movies, and, of course, Smallville, that took far too many hours of my days and colored my perceptions of who Superman and his adoptive father, Jonathan Kent, are.

Enter Man of Steel

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When I walked into the theater to see the Superman reboot, Man of Steel, I carried all of my preconceptions of who the character was with me. My introduction to the character colored my perceptions, and I hated the movie. I felt betrayed by the producers, writers, and the director. I felt they assassinated the character of Superman and Jonathan Kent…because they were different from what my preconceptions said they should be, and I loved those preconceptions so much (especially Jonathan Kent, Smallville version, in whom I saw a lot of my grandfather) that I could not reconcile with the new movie.

My friends who had a wider range of Superman preconceptions, and who were more willing to suspend their prejudices to see a new take on the character, loved it. Who was right? I thought I was. But was I?

Marvel Did it “Right”

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I have as many Marvel comics as I do DC, and far more Image and Wildstorm comics than either one of the Big 2, but I like the Marvel movies much better. They do their movies “right.”

How can I say that? How can I be an authority on what is right or wrong regarding subjective material? I shouldn’t be able to…but I can. I can because my “rightness” is subjective too.

The Marvel movies are not objectively better than the DC movies, but they hold up to my preconceptions of the characters much better than the DC movies do. When I see The Avengers on screen, I don’t see someone’s interpretation of them; I see what I would have done with those characters were I in charge of the production; I see my childhood, my preconceptions given form on the silver screen.

On the other hand, some friends of mine detest Thor because he isn’t “magical” enough. That’s their preconception of the character from years of reading comic books. Who am I to say they’re “wrong” for having that opinion about a character they love?

Star Wars: The Elephant in the Room

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Many complain that the Star Wars prequels were terrible and failed to live up to the Original Trilogy. I believe they’re probably right, based on what their preconceptions about the movie and the galaxy far, far away were.

When I went to the theater to watch The Phantom Menace, I carried no preconceptions with me. I had never seen a Star Wars movie and had no idea who Luke, Han, or Leia even were. For me, I wasn’t watching a prequel to an old trilogy; I was watching Star Wars.

After I had watched Ep1, I enjoyed the concept of Star Wars, but it wasn’t until Ep2 (still having not seen the Original Trilogy) that I truly fell in love with it. Then I watched the Original Trilogy, expecting something out of this world, but it fell flat. It felt nothing like the Star Was that I knew. It was dark and tragic and terrible (up until then, the tragedy in the prequels was limited to Anakin’s mother and Qui-Gon).

Since that time, I’ve delved into just about every piece of Star Was fiction that’s out there – I’ve even written several game hacks of the setting, like this one for the Fate Core Roleplaying System. But even today, I still favor stories centered around, or just before, The Clone Wars.

Because of how I was introduced to the franchise, the prequels were not the backstory of Darth Vader, and the Original Trilogy was not the core story. For me, Star Wars is a story about a shining republic, flawed but great; a tragedy about how one corrupt politician can drive a great nation into a post-apocalyptic cautionary tale, which is how I interpreted the Original Trilogy when I finally saw it.

That’s not everyone’s experience with it, but the internet seems to assume that everyone’s experience is the same. I’m happy to agree to disagree because I’m not every Star Wars fan. I’m one person who took the long way through hyperspace to the galaxy far, far away.

It’s All Subjective

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There’s no right way to enjoy art. Whether you love it or hate it has as much to do with your preconceptions as it does with the execution of the artists, as flawed as that execution may be.

For me, I’m done hating on works of art, because I know that someone came to the experience with different preconceptions than I did (and there’s a real person behind that artistic expression with feelings and aspirations and a love of the thing – poor George Lucas). For me to run down a piece that someone else likes is almost as bad as me running them down for having a “wrong” subjective opinion. Nothing could be more asinine.

So I’m going to let people like what they like. As my good friend, Antwan Hawkins, has said many times, “it’s incredible that we even get the chance to have these conversations about things we love being made as movies.” I’d have to agree.