No Time To Play

Weekly Links #70: writing for RPGs edition

by on May.17, 2015, under Off-topic, Opinion

It’s always ups and downs I guess. Just a week again I was complaining about health issues. Now I’m well again, as for Glittering Light, it now has sound as well as something that can pass for a title screen. The plan was to also have built-in credits, a scoreboard and all the goodies, but that would just take too much effort at this point, especially with the lack of attention the game “enjoys”. It pains me, because I know I can make a game look professional — I did it with Attack Vector, and it wasn’t that hard. But that was back then.

Otherwise, this is another week with few news, so I’m going to fill the space with commentary instead. Specifically, about RPGs, writing, combat and how it all applies to other kinds of games.

Three weeks ago I highlighted an article about the relative importance of combat in old-school D&D. This week we have another one asking, why is there so much combat in RPGs? And you know, used to be you picked a rogue so you’d climb walls and disarm traps, while the mage could freeze a bridge into existence over a river, or make the ground slippery for those charging orcs. But nowadays the rogue is only good for backstabbing, and the mage for hurling fireballs. And you’re going to say my examples don’t work so well in a computer game (O RLY? tell that to roguelike developers). But then at least give XP for making progress in game, regardless of the method — for getting past enemies, not over their dead bodies. Of course, that means adding a few different ways to interact with the game’s environment, but I can tell you from experience it’s easier than all the simulation work involved in a decent combat engine.

Computer games are all about the various ways we interact with them. That’s the whole point. Books, movies, games in other genres… they can all provide inspiration. Use it.

While on the same topic, Rock Paper Shotgun gives us a list of the 25 worst RPG moments. And they make a lot of good points, from lazy writing, to cutscenes stealing the player’s agency because of some event that’s “supposed” to happen (a pet peeve of mine in books and movies, too — the checklist-based story), with a few jabs at MMOs thrown in for good measure. But two points in particular attracted my attention because they’re specifically about writing, and as such apply to other media as well.

The first one is faux-Shakespearean English. TVTropes has an entire article about it, but the tl;dr version is, peppering your characters’ speech at random with old verbal forms misremembered from King James’ Bible does not count as “medieval flavor”. For one thing, the Middle Ages officially ended over two centuries before Old Will’s time. (Now, if you’re going for a quasi-Renaissance setting, that’s different, but how many fantasy writers do that?) Second, you most likely don’t know the rules of early 17th-century English, let alone older dialects, and you’re making a big ridiculous mess of it.

So what is there to do? One good idea is to do nothing in particular. Just like Captain Picard speaks modern English (because most people can’t begin to guess what we’ll talk like in a few centuries), your medieval characters can stick to the language of their audience. Of course, you’ll want to avoid ultra-modern words such as psychology, but for the most part you should be good. Another would be to read older books — but not too old; 19th century should do fine — and see how writers used to word things back then, because it’s more than just a matter of vocabulary. You want to pick just enough mannerisms from times past that your readers might feel the fingers of days long gone clinging to the edge of your utterances. Just don’t overdo it, because readers will mock you.

The other issue (and the last in the article), is imposing on your readers the boring cosmology of yet another Standard Fantasy Setting. How many different ways can you tell people that blah blah orcs, blah elves and dwarves, blah dragons? Don’t get me wrong, exposition can be great. It’s a tool in the writer’s arsenal, and anyone who tells you to avoid it is a fraud. But exposition should give the reader useful information. What is unique about your setting? What does the reader need to know right now that can’t be shown through a bit of action down the road?

Speaking of that, the Standard Fantasy Setting is a useful trope. It’s the perfect shortcut — the reader will instantly figure out the basic rules, and you can get right on with the story. But that’s yet another argument for avoiding lengthy introductions that say nothing new. On the flipside, all the weight now rests on the characters. If they fail to capture the reader’s interest and sympathy, there’s no sense of wonder to fall back on. Are you a good enough writer?

To end on a different note, Hardcore Gaming 101 recently ran a feature about instances where videogame arcades, or the games themselves, make an appearance inside other games. And it’s a surprisingly common occurrence, even long after their real-world counterparts stopped being a thing. Goes to show how much arcades influenced my generation. Yes, even in Communist Romania, strange as it may seem.

But nostalgia only goes so far. See you around.

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Weekly Links #70: writing for RPGs edition by Felix Pleșoianu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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