Category Archives: Genres

Make me care – the two sides of Bioware storytelling

I am an avid gamer, as many folks are. Over the years I’ve come to focus primarily on strategy games and role playing games, with the draw of both being the story that unfolds out as you play.

This is especially true for the role playing games produced over the years by Bioware. Bioware has a knack for combining winning gaming systems with engrossing stories that has kept me involved in their products for more than twenty years now.

For the purposes of this post, I’d like to highlight two of their most famous game series and how the writing for those series helped me become a better writer myself. Ironically the big lesson for me lay in studying why Mass Effect, one of my favorite games of all time, failed to get me emotionally engaged with the main character.

Mass Effect is the story of Command Shepard, a player-created character who embarks on a mission to save the galaxy from the oncoming threat of the deadly Reapers. The story spans three games, each of which can take hundreds of hours to play through completely. Mass Effects world building is peerless in its industry, and to this day it is my favorite science fiction universe created in the past twenty years. From one corner of its galaxy to the other, the mythos and lore of Mass Effect pulled me in deep.

Yet as connected as I was to the world, I could never connect with Commander Shepard himself (or herself, as I did a second playthrough with a female Shepard). It took me a while to work out why this was, but over time I realized it was a lack of personal stakes for the main character of the story.

Shepard walks through the three Mass Effect games almost as a blank space with the whole world being colored around him. Shepard himself has no family, no background beyond a cursory few paragraphs and no real motivations beyond what the player might give him in their own head canon.

The game is more about the rich worlds Shepard visits and the amazing companions he meets along the way. Over the course of the games characters like Garrus, Liara and Mordin grew into friends to me and what happened to them became important. They grow and change, each going on story arcs that are deep and very impactful. Yet Shepard doesn’t change at all. He’s the same guy at the end of game three as he was at the end of game one. I guess this is why, while I love the Mass Effect series, the main character always left me cold. It was like watching a movie where they forgot to put in the main character.

For the most part, this is the modern Bioware model. The main character is a cipher by design to allow for player insertion. The plot and side characters flow around the MC, and while the player gets to impact the world in a very meaningful way, the game isn’t *about* him or her.

Bioware made an exception to this is the second game in the Dragon Age series, and this deviation is one of the main reasons this game is so divisive among the fanbase. Unlike all three Mass Effect games and the other two Dragon Age games, Dragon Age 2 is very much about its main character Hawke.

Right from the first scene we are given Hawke’s family, fleeing in terror from a horde of monsters destroying their home country. We meet his mother and siblings. Early in the story one of the siblings is killed and the rest of the family is reduced to refugees, begging for work in the streets of their new home of Kirkwall.

Through the course of Dragon Age 2, many of the standard Bioware tropes are still on display. Characters with deep and rich backstories come to your side, and Kirkwall gains depth as a setting as the game goes on. The plight of Hawke and his family never leaves center stage though. Hawke’s fortunes change for both better and worse through the story, and at the end of the tale he is a significantly different character than who he was at the beginning.

I connected deeply with Dragon Age 2’s Hawke in a way I never did with Shepard in the Mass Effect games. The story was about him, rather than just how he impacted the story. Hawke had personal stakes – he wasn’t just a hero trying to save people because that’s what heroes do. He had family in the thick of things, and he had to sacrifice and change as a character in order to try and save them.

The difference between Hawke and Shepard is subtle but important to me, and it’s one I’ve tried to remember as I am writing my own stories. I try to give my heroes personal skin in the game, to make them more than just ‘good guys’ who rode into town to right wrongs but to have something on the line that is personal to them and requires them to grow in order to see things set right.

Role Playing as Story telling

Welcome to Agnara

Welcome to a story that has been growing, evolving and branching into new lands, new realms and new worlds for going on forty years now. Pretty much every part of this continent has been part of the story, as well as other continents and islands not shown here. But it’s all one story.

Yes, it’s a Role Playing Gaming campaign. But “campaign” is too small a word for it. It probably left “epic” behind a dozen years ago. Hundreds of characters have been created, lived, died and a few have become demigods in their own right.

It all started here:

If you look close, you can see a small black star that marks the location of both the first D&D session I ever ran, and the first story told in this world.

The thing is, that this story is not my story. It’s a story with dozens of writers, all working together to create a sweeping tale of triumph, tragedy and humor. But all of that follows a thread, and occurs on a stage that I did create, and continue to create to this day.

It’s a world with dark secrets, powerful and evil villains, and great heroes. The first campaign followed the near extinction of the entire race of dwarves, and the heroism of a now-legendary party who fought to the very gates of hell to restore dwarvenkind to the world.

But that was merely the start. From there the story spread across seas, and even across worlds. The great heroes are immortalized in legend, song, monuments, even the names of cities. Ceorl the half-elf wizard, Drax the Defender, Dane the Deadly, and finally Forkovr the dwarf, whose exploits were so astonishing that he rose into the ranks of the divine, and whose followers now rival the size of other sects.

While heroes tend to come and go, the great villains are somehow never fully defeated, rising from the ashes again and again to threaten new generations of Agnarans.

I started this world around 1980, and it has hosted campaigns using several RPG rules systems. But the story goes on.

This isn’t all fun and games. Although it mostly is. I learned a great deal about story telling, about conflict, about character development and plot. Most of that works as well in novels as it does at the game table. I also learned how to create highly detailed, imaginative worlds filled with a diverse collection of races, political intrigue, economic systems and entire mythologies. My novels and short stories are much richer for the experience.

I like to tell people that running D&D campaigns was the best training I ever had to be a project manager. It was also great training to be a writer.

The story isn’t over. I’ll be starting a new chapter soon. Who knows where that will take the story? I don’t. That depends as much on my players as it does on me. But wherever it goes, it will become more history for some future campaign.

Sound like fun? Then let’s roll some dice!

Episodic Vs Sequential: TV Shows and Novel Series

TV storytelling has changed with the advent of VCRs, DVDs and streaming services. In the golden age of TV, it was much more common for each episode of a TV show to be a self-contained story.

The reason is simple: showrunners couldn’t presume that viewers had been able to watch the previous episodes. If you were busy during the show’s airing time, then you missed the show. So, it made sense for each episode to stand alone. Title sequences introduced new viewers to the show’s characters, theme and mood. Even if you’d never seen a show before, you could get a pretty good idea what it was about before the day’s episode started. (And title sequences are getting shorter these days, or being left out entirely, now that most viewers no longer need them to learn about the show they’re about to see.)

The problem with episodic storytelling is that it’s more difficult to show long-term character development, or to give events permanent consequences. In its purest form, the end of the episode presses the reset button, returning the characters to the status quo at the beginning of the next episode. Still, some shows developed a certain sense of continuity: origin episodes, introduction of new characters or departure of old ones, key events in season finales.

With the advent of the VCR, people could record shows and watch them later at their convenience. And now, with streaming services, it’s become common for viewers to “binge” on a show and watch the entire season over the course of a few days.

(This is not to say that the golden age of TV didn’t have serials–soap operas, anyone?–or that there isn’t great episodic TV being made right now. )

But general trends changed when it became easier for people to keep up with their favourite shows. When data suggested that people enjoyed viewing shows in a single sitting (or two or three), showrunners naturally made shows catering to those kind of viewing habits. There’s now a strong trend towards “bingeable” shows – long running serials that tell a multi-thread story over the course of a season, and an even bigger story over the course of a series. Actions have consequences, and characters grow and change – but it’s rare for a viewer to pick a random episode in the middle of a series just to “check it out,” now that it’s easier to start at the beginning.

When you’re writing a novel series, which model do you want to follow?

In part, it depends on genre. For example, if you’re writing a category romance novel series, it’s often expected that a new reader should be able to pick up a book at any point in the series and enjoy the story. Additionally, romance stories derive their tension from showing how the hero and heroine get together–tension that’s hard to show once they’re an established couple. As a result, category romance series have developed a certain pattern. Each book in the series takes place in the same world, but each book (usually) focuses on a new hero and heroine. The supporting characters are often either the heroes/heroines of previous books, or future hero/heroines of upcoming stories. As a result, fans are able to return to a world they love, while new readers won’t be lost if they aren’t familiar with the supporting characters from previous books, and the primary tension is still focused on watching a couple overcome their obstacles to be together. However, this formula makes it difficult to show character relationships growing and changing beyond the book that the characters “star” in.

On the other hand, some series all but require you read them in order, or you’ll be lost continuity-wise. For myself, I love a big, ongoing, developing story where characters’ actions have consequences, and the plot unfolds based on the choices the characters made previously. But this technique makes it harder for new readers to “jump in” in the middle.

And some series walk a middle line. Each book is a self-contained arc, but if you put them together, you’ll also see a series-long story arc developing. For example, in some mystery series, a new mystery gets solved in each book, but as the series progresses, the main characters change, develop, and grow, giving the series a sense of continuity and ongoing development.

In large part, it depends on what you as a writer want to do. Do you want to write a series where each book focuses on a different character in the same universe? Do you want the flexibility to add “new adventures” if the series takes off?

Or do you have a long-term vision for a story that’s too long for just one (or three, or more) books to hold? Do you want to show a character growing and changing over the long term, and do you believe that you can convince audiences to care about this character, to choose to spend time in their company over and over again?

If the first book in a series hooks a reader, they’re likely to come back for more—particularly when they feel that the story is “going somewhere” and that each book “matters” because events have consequences. But there’s also something to be said for a format that’s welcoming to new readers, and doesn’t require them to put Book 4 back on the shelf and go looking for Book 1 in order to understand what’s going on. There’s audiences for both types of series (as well as the middle gorund) so choose what method best suits your genre and the story you want to tell.

 

About Mary: 

Mary Pletsch is a glider pilot, toy collector and graduate of the University of Huron College, the Royal Military College of Canada and Dalhousie University. She is the author of several previously published short stories in a variety of genres, including science fiction, steampunk, fantasy and horror. She currently lives in New Brunswick with Dylan Blacquiere and their four cats.

 

Unexpected Invitations and Opportunities

Earlier this year, I sent off my novel Vendetta Protocol for a blurb from Baen books author Charles E. Gannon. When he responded with an excellent blurb, I was surprised by the last line of his email. After reading my book, he recommended me to authors Chris Kennedy and Mark Wandrey. I’d never heard of either of them, but in the weeks that followed, I learned that each of them had authored one book in what they called the Four Horsemen Universe – a military science fiction universe where humans most commonly act as mercenaries and often find themselves on the short end of the galactic stick. Mark and Chris offered me a story spot in an anthology they were launching to flesh out their universe based on that recommendation alone.

I hadn’t read their books and Chris and Mark hadn’t read mine. As we emailed back and forth, a knot of self-induced pressure built in my chest. Could I pull this off? Could I make good on my friend’s recommendation? When I received their “primer,” a fifteen page document outlining the basic rules of the universe, I sat down to read it and immediately gravitated to the concept of a Peacemaker Guild. Combined with a timely thought about a really bad movie from the 1980s, I developed a short story idea. Over the course of two weeks, I wrote the story and then did something I’ve never done before – I sent them the rough draft of the story and asked if I was anywhere close to what they wanted with their universe. Their response surprised me.

Not only was the story exactly what they wanted, they wanted me to continue the story of Earth’s first Peacemaker in novel format. I looked at my writing plan for the year, the success of the two additional books they launched in the universe, and what they were doing with the anthology (of which there were plans for three) and said yes. I scrapped finishing my Protocol War series in 2017 and signed on to write an unplanned book in a universe I was still learning about, and I had about twelve weeks to do it. Could I?

I did. When I completed the novel Peacemaker and turned it in to them, I had no idea what to expect. Would they like the story? Would the rabid fans of the Four Horsemen Universe embrace it? Had I told the kind of story I wanted to tell in their universe? The answer to all of those questions unfolded in late August and was a resounding “YES!” From that unexpected invitation, I’ve now committed to writing a total of three books in the Peacemaker storyline and have just completed book two – Honor The Threat.

For me, 2017 was all about embracing unexpected opportunities. Doing so has led me into avenues I’d never considered and put my work in front of new readers and fans. It’s hard to believe that I’m writing a new series from a short story idea, but that’s the way this writing thing tends to work. I’ve paddled into a wave and I’m going to ride it as best I can. In the coming year, I have books to write and conventions to attend, but I’ll be looking for opportunities because they can come in the most unexpected places. Keep your eyes and ears open – you never know where things might go.