Don’t Tell Me About Your Character

One of the techniques that writing instructors stress time and again is “show, don’t tell.” Yet, no such piece of advice exists for gamers. In fact, more often than not players tell the gamemaster what their characters are doing while the gamemaster tells the players about the world their characters inhabit. It seems weird that something that would bore an audience to tears in a written format is how many players derive satisfaction in the heat of the moment.

Something that strikes me as being just as strange is that when people talk about their most memorable sessions, they show almost as much as they tell. The characters are more alive with details of what they were doing compared to the actual game session. In many ways, their descriptions are like stories of true events. But, again, this is not the most exciting way to tell a story.

What can gamers learn from this? There are ways to interject showing into the descriptions of the events that occur in a game without taking away anyone’s agency. This is why players are able to describe events as a story rather than a report after the fact. But there should be a way we can draw from this to move beyond a report style of gaming.

If you are unfamiliar with the difference between showing and telling, consider the following descriptions of events:

 

“My character walks up to the door and I want to check for traps. I rolled a 16.”

“I walk up to the door and examine it for traps with a result of 16.”

 

The differences are subtle, but one is more active than the other. The first example is a play-by-play report of what the character is going to do and the second is a smoother rendition of the same event that shows. There is nothing inherently wrong with the first method, and this is often the way most game sessions go as there is a need to pause to let people know what is going on in any particular game.

If you trust your players or gamemaster enough, you can show these actions and trust that neither side is trying to circumvent any of the rules. After all, if there are any adjustments due to situational circumstances, there should be little reason to believe the gamemaster is cheating. This also requires the gamemaster shows rather than tells what the world looks like.

In this instance, it requires the gamemaster does not just provide a list of details for what the room, town, or dungeon looks like. A 10’ wide corridor with moss is boring after a while, but if you say that the moss is growing or creeping up the walls, you give a description that feels alive and more active. One of the techniques that keeps descriptions from moving from a showing to a telling is the verbs used. Do the objects interact with one another, or are they just present? If they interact, then you are showing.

Telling is often passive and does not come across as vividly. Veteran gamemasters are often great at doing this, but when players make the transition to the other side of the screen they often tell as that is the mode they have learned to operate from when playing a roleplaying game. Showing is a skill that people have to develop as we are used to reporting what has happened in the past. This is as much caused by how we learn to receive news as it is the way our brains process stimuli and weed out the information it doesn’t think is important, like how things interact with each other unless the event affects the observer.

Another area where showing and not telling comes in handy is in interior dialogues with a character. We might not be able to show the interior of a character’s thoughts, but we can show how he acts as a result of them. Even if the process is mostly in the character’s head, there are a few tricks to help make these moments dramatic and active. Most of these tricks are the same as those outlined above. What is important to remember is that the events have to be actions if you want to retain the excitement.

To make it more mysterious, you can limit who gets the information for what goes on in the character’s head. However, that can lead to other problems with players being left out of some of the action. That is where letting the players see the results without seeing the cause comes in handy. It is just like the movies, only better because it is unfolding in real time.

So, when someone gives a dry description, you can tell them “Don’t tell me about your character, show me.”

Shadings in the Boxes: Playing it Slant

Since its introduction in the late 70s in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax’s two-axis alignment system has been a staple of that game line for more than thirty years, culminating in its continued use in the d20/OGL third-party products still in print.  Despite this longevity, the concept of nine alignments with their strict interpretations as described in the rulebooks seems to be the only way in which characters can be played.  The rules aren’t immutable.  They are termed guidelines by the games’ authors.  If the rules are considered as such, doesn’t that mean one should consider that the same applies to the alignment definitions?  Most gamers don’t seem to take this view if one looks at the number of complaints and arguments across the Internet on this subject.  How does one account for the venerable seventeen-plane Great Ring cosmology that accompanied Gygax’s introduction of this system?  As such, there must be shadings within the alignments if that cosmology is any indication.  These questions are the impetus of this inquiry and whether or not it is possible to interpret what alignments truly describe.

A few things need to be deconstructed in order to not only establish the ground rules for the project as a whole, but also as a way to examine variations on alignments without being a complete departure from their core values.  Rather, these variations express something that is contrary to these very values on a superficial level.  This gives a sense of standing apart in an erstwhile sea of sameness without running completely outside the group.  Thus, these slight deviations are referred to as “shadings” given their take “colors” the perception of an alignment.

It is important to note that there is no attempt to undermine the system that exists, but rather to promote the idea that the good/evil and law/chaos axes are a system of coordinates within which there is room to maneuver.  The hope here is that players will take more leeway with interpreting alignments in their games, have a better understanding of someone’s interpretation, or shadings of what already exists.

The series is structured by examining what is written about each alignment and then following it up with a series of sample interpretations for each.  The examination of the alignments starts by questioning and deconstructing their descriptions and if they are fair assessments of adherents of the alignments they profess.  Through deconstructing the concepts in each, it becomes easier to identify what concepts must remain intact and which are negotiable.  From there, the variations in the shadings can be constructed and still remain true to their parent’s description.  Thus, good will remain good, even if its honor is shredded a bit.

In writing terms, this is known as playing it slant.  It’s the angle one takes to tell a story or portray a character.  Actors do this to find a character’s motivation for the behavior exhibited.  The entire point of this work, then, is to spur players to explore and mine their characters’ back stories for all they’re worth.  Or, in other words, how a character’s personality shapes his alignment.

These Teachers Should be Fired (NSFW)

Okay, so while I’m a huge supporter of education.  There’s an article from the Wall Street Journal that is something else.  And it’s not the fault of the article or the reporting.  It’s what the English teachers are doing to their students that I find abhorrent.  It’s downright repellent that these instructors are telling their students that they cannot use certain words that are, in effect, the glue of our common language in a sea of over 500,000 words that make up the English language.

Think about that.  There are over 500,000 words in this terribly fucked-up language we speak.  The history of the language is so convoluted that if you turned it into a story, people would hate you because it would make no sense.  English is the little language that could and it probably shouldn’t have if you look at how many times it came close to being wiped out by other languages.  But, somehow it morphed into a massive mutated multilingual murdering monstrosity maintaining a lexicon of words.

Nobody remembers half of these words anymore, yet they’re maintained in the ginormous catalogue that is the Oxford English Dictionary along with all the variant spellings of words nobody cares about since they’ve fallen well out of favor for no other reason than they just did or someone’s standardization of spelling.  And nobody cares unless they are either English majors or English language historians, and even then these are the people who describe how the language works without telling you how to use it.

So, this is where the problem with these asshats comes in.  They’re telling kids that they have to chuck out all the words that essentially make up the core of good, concise writing for international business English.  You know, the words everyone who speaks English with any level of skill has to know.  These poor kids haven’t even gotten comfortable in their own skins and these fucking teachers have the audacity to tell their students that they can’t use words the teachers consider “dead?”  Seriously?  What in the ever loving fuck is this shit?

These failed writers are telling your kids that they have to be more expressive when they’re still trying to learn the basics of the language.  I’m pretty sure that either these horrible people are trying to live vicariously through the writing of their students or want to make them feel as miserable as the teachers do and want to snuff their dreams in the cradle.  If you’re not upset by this, you really should be.  Just look at this little gem from the article:

Megan Riley, a sixth-grader in Mt. Lebanon, Pa., recently joined her classmates in chanting the words that their English teacher has pronounced dead: “Good, bad, nice, a lot, OK, fun, thing and stuff.” Later, the students were told, they might hold a mock funeral to bury those words.

A mock fucking funeral?!?!  For “dead words” sixth-graders aren’t supposed to use anymore?  These kids are experiencing all the terrible things hormones are doing to their bodies to make them feel self-conscious and awkward as hell and you want to pull out the rug from under them for the words they’re allowed to use?  Who the fuck do you teachers think you are?

Look, I have no illusions that I’m an awesome writer as I’ve been doing this as a profession for 11 years now and buying a website had to be weighed as a monetary decision that was feasible and necessary.  If I was awesome at this shit, I’d have a pile of money I could use to pay for websites without debating whether I should and it’s taken me years to get to the level I’m at.  It was 10 years after high school that I fumbled through shitty draft after shitty draft before I could make a coherent thought artful enough to get paid for it.

Now I get wanting kids to expand their vocabulary, but that’s why we should be encouraging reading everything and anything available.  We want kids to feel they can express themselves and to have all the tools at their disposal to do just that.  This doesn’t encourage them to do so.  It encourages them to be wordy and artistic before they’ve learned how to write the truth of their own observations?  Besides, do you honestly think a business proposal avoiding “dead words” would be taken seriously?

All this purple prose bullshit is arrogance in the extreme.  The students aren’t being taught how to use language effectively, but rather how to call attention to the very artifice that makes bad writing so terrible.  If I proliferated this rant with nothing but profanity or used the largest words I could just to prove a point, there would no value to reading this or justifying the time I wasted figuratively throwing up in your eye holes.

So, here are a couple more gems from this article that should make you want to pressure the schools to get rid of these teachers who are harming their student’s education.

One recent afternoon after school, Josie and Josh agreed to take a stab at editing famous authors, starting with the closing words ofJames Joyce’s “Ulysses”: “….yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Head down, her pigtails brushing the paper, Josie examined the phrase and then suggested a small amendment: “…yes I hollered yes I will Definitely.”

Josh decided to let “said” stand, given Joyce’s reputation. He did, however, insert the commas neglected by Joyce.

No, no, no, no!  This is truly audacious.  The teachers have students “correcting” James motherfucking Joyce!  Does no one understand that the whole of Ulysses is a deliberately designed piece of art that relies as much upon mythic structure as it does linguistic sound qualities?  It seems that the teachers don’t as they’re allowing their students to misuse the very tools they’re trying to instill in their students.

“Said,” “walk,” and other such words are dry and factual and can be overused just like any other linguistic expression (clichés anyone?), but there’s a huge difference between expressing the emotional content in a character’s words as there is in the delivery of those very words.  I don’t need to know that someone exclaimed or ejaculated a string of words if they’re followed by an exclamation point.  I don’t even need to know how angry someone is or that they ambulated their way across the page if it’s clear what’s going on from the context alone.

At best, the words will be redundant; at worst, the writing will be tortured and a clear example of telling, not showing.  And this is what these teachers fail to keep firmly in mind.  They are quite literally failing their students and instilling in them a sense that language is used for reporting, not expression.  Writers have to trust that their readers are smart enough to pick up on the emotional and literal context of their work.

So, when the kids stated:

Second-guessing famous authors was tricky, Josh cautioned: “It’s almost as though they’re given a free pass” to flout the rules. Josie submitted that she wasn’t sure they should get that pass.

Her brother winced: “You’ve got to remember,” he lectured, “most of these guys are dead.”

This shows you exactly how arrogant this practice is and that wince should speak volumes of the discomfort the kids should feel for what they’re being made to do, not to the structure of the literary works of Joyce and Hemingway.  Letting the work speak for itself is what the teachers should be instilling.  Understanding the hows and whys of written works is what you study after you have a firm grip on the basics.

 

Interface Zero 2.0 Malmart Catalog

So, one of the projects I’m working on is the Malmart Catalog for Gun Metal Games‘ Interface Zero.  For all intents and purposes, let’s just go with the fact that this is a good thing and keep that in mind for some of the things I’m about to talk about that might make you think otherwise.  I’m really happy to be working on this book.

There are a few things here though that make it a bit strange and a huge first for me.  The most important is the writing style.  Since this is a catalog for the year 2090, the bulk of the products described are being written in copywriter speak.  So, yeah…. You’re getting a book that’s filled with ads for products that don’t exist.  Not only that, but the book’s primary audience in this regard are the middle class and affluent.

If you know anything about the cyberpunk genre, the audience I’m writing to aren’t the heroes.  So, that’s where the other bit of weirdness comes in.  I’ve always been told that writers are supposed to write for their audience and that’s not what I’m doing here.  The book is supposed to give you a sense of how the world is in the game which makes it ideal for players and gamemasters.

I’m aware how bizarre this sounds.  It’s like a dialectic that refuses to be solved.  But that’s exactly where the book needs to be.  For cyberpunk heroes who come from the streets and have oh so little, this is a representation of a world that ignores them and essentially left their forebears behind.  It’s also filled with the things they want.

When your life sucks that much though, what do you do when you get these things?  How do they help you survive?  There are a lot of questions like this that the catalog can’t and won’t answer.  The only phrase to help you in solving this dilemma for the characters is from William Gibson’s “Burning Chrome”: “the street finds its own use for things.”

 

New Home

Okay, so there’s not much to see at the moment, but I’m working on that. I’ll be setting up things as time and my writing schedule permits. Until then, hope you’ll stay tuned.