Monday, June 28, 2010

Backstory; or, what's your character doing in this dungeon when he could be farming for a living?

Writing character backstories is great practice for writing in general. The character sheet is background research, which you use to answer a few prompts:
1) How did your character acquire his skills?
2) How does your character behave under ordinary circumstances?
3) Why is your character adventuring, given the high mortality rate?

As long as those questions are answered, getting the backstory to the DM before the campaign begins is more important than writing a high-quality backstory--another reason why it's good practice for me. You can go into as much depth as you like on any of the prompts, and naturally backstory length varies widely. A good one can be a paragraph or twenty pages, but the shortest are more likely to be uninformative, the longest unreadable. The DM's got enough work; saddling him with a novel-length character description, or forcing him to build your character's identity himself, is inconsiderate.

Here are a couple of backstories that I've written in the last week. The first is a work in progress, both because I want to make it longer and because the character is in an ongoing campaign. The second was a thought experiment.


Sharran was born the scion of a noble family, descended from celestials in the service of Heironeous, and thus naturally devout followers of that god. The lion's share of the familly served in the capacity of Heironeus' clerics and paladins, and it was expected that Sharran would follow the same route. But Sharran was quite unlike his relatives. His short, wiry frame and scrambling approach to life contrasted sharply with the contemplative and courtly habits of his tall, graceful siblings. Rumors that Sharran was illegitimate added to a general atmosphere of unease concerning the young heir, which served to isolate him.

Sharran objected to the righteous fervor and militaristic demeanor of the Tarciels, which he believed insulated them from the rest of the world and subjected them to an unhealthy stasis. When it came time for him to choose his path, he wanted nothing more than to shake things up. As he was presented with the ceremonial sword and shield that represented the choice between clergy and the knighthood, inspiration descended upon Sharran. Taking an ordinary stick that laid nearby, he dealt a mighty blow that broke the sword and shattered the shield. Then he strode out the door and out of the city, for good.

It has been many years since that day. Sharran has come to the understanding that Fharlanghn the Dweller, god of roads, is the source of his powers. But he still does not fully understand how he came to be a druid of the traveling deity. For one thing, he cannot find companionship with animals, a central tenet of druidic teachings. Perhaps it's a parting shot from his family and their Outsider blood; but then, how is he to progress towards enlightenment? (How ironic that the blood of angels should be such an impediment.) How can he reconcile his philosophy of change with the druid's focus on balance? Sharran travels in search of answers. But he may have to put his personal dilemmas on hold in the face of a plague that threatens all.


Jenaya grew up on the streets of Skyfane City, carving out a life for herself outside the law. And she was good...very good. She came to view crime as an art form, from the skillful choice of mark to the evasion of the Man afterwards. Her devotion to the art form soon exceeded her devotion to crime--though she was hardly averse to breaking the law. She began to take on higher-profile targets, letting her whimsy dictate her choices. The day after breaking up a crime ring before the law arrived, she would thieve a priceless treasure from a well-guarded aristocrat. The only constant was the fox mask she left wherever she did her daring work. Rumors spread about the Fox--a man with mastery of illusion magic, a sorceress with great powers of seduction, a quickling with an uncommon interest in human affairs. Jenaya let the rumors take hold, even added some of her own--and quietly laughed whenever she heard them on the street.

Even so, someone had the wherewithal to track her down. She woke up one night to find herself surrounded by hard-looking folk. A man, their apparent leader, sat at the foot of her bed. He introduced himself as an enforcer of the Nightsong Guild, a powerful player wherever there was play to be had. Jenaya had been stepping on more than a few toes, and so come to the enforcers' attention. The man offered her a mutually beneficial arrangement. Membership in the Nightsong Guild would give Jenaya greater resources with which to pursue her antics, and legitimacy in the underworld of civilization. In return, the guild would benefit from the notoriety of the Fox, and occasionally ask her services for particular tasks--and take a cut of the Fox's prizes, as well. She could refuse, of course, but then she would risk making the guild her enemy--and they had amply demonstrated their ability to track her down.

Jenaya accepted. Privately, though, she saw an opportunity to outdo all her previous work. How would it do to trick the underworld's most famous tricksters? As she trained in the team tactics that characterized the Nightsong Guild, she also began her preparations. She gathered information about the guild's leaders, its network of operations, its allies and enemies and triply turncoat traitors. And she began scheming to take down the guild from the inside.

But she was found out before she could set her plans in motion, and the entire guild was mobilized against her. She escaped by the skin of her teeth, and now she's on the run. The Nightsong Guild even took the unprecedented step of releasing information on the Fox to the law--betraying the underworld's cardinal rule. With nothing left to Jenaya but her devotion to trickery, she constantly heightens her skills in order to avoid the authorities by day and the assassins by night.


Critiques welcome.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Religion: For or Against?

Well, crap. I will be eternally apologizing for late posting, it seems. Well, that's why I imposed a regular posting schedule--to deal with the issues that prevent me from meeting regular schedules.

Anyway, this is another miniature essay developed in response to a query. I did one on atheism, so I suppose it's only fair I do one for religion as well.

Religion is an important element of culture, and an efficient instrument for disseminating values and ideas. It is a powerful group identity, like ethnicity or nationality. Like those, it is capable of great good (consider the statistics for Christian charity, for example) or great evil (the Inquisition, suicide bombing, sectarian violence). It is capable of smaller goods (e.g. whether or not prayer 'works', it's an extremely effective way to unload stress and negative feelings) and smaller evils (interference with the lives of homosexuals because of ancient proscriptions, or interference with scientific disciplines). Religion was a primary enabler of slavery and abolition both--and the same religion, at that.

Ideally, how we live our lives should have very little to do with whether there is or isn't a God. Is the Golden Rule less valid if its source is not divine? If it is divine? But in practice, anyone can see that belief in God matters very much to people. So the best I can hope for is a marketplace of ideas, where one can practice kindness and exercise reason according to his own doctrine.

And this is the sticking point I have with religion. When it comes to the marketplace of ideas, religion is often static, if not incarcerating. The most extreme example of this is the death penalty for apostasy in Islam, still practiced in some places; that tends to discourage independent thinking. The reliance on absolute truth as the foundation of doctrine hampers the evolution of doctrine in the marketplace. Once someone has taken up fundamentalist Christianity, it's nearly impossible to budge that position for ethics or practicality or what have you.

But then...that's true of many group identities, isn't it? At the end of the day, so many choices come down to my party, my ethnicity, my country, my leader, my faith right or wrong--and how could a population of six billion people avoid grouping up? How could we get anywhere if nobody ever banded together in common cause? It's simply how civilization works. And I cannot uniquely condemn religion for the problems inherent to any large group. So I must allow it, warts and all, and try to mitigate the associated problems. Society is damage control for humanity.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


While Stumbling through the Intertubes a while back, I came upon a little website called WeBook, and was intrigued. The premise is simple: someone pays a little money to put up the first page of his story, other people (and editors) rate the story, and if they like it, they ask for more—first a chapter, then the whole book. The website makes a game out of this process, by letting raters know afterwards what other raters and editors thought of the book. This system encourages people to try for the ‘right’ rating, the one other people and editors gave, to demonstrate their knowledge of literature—though undoubtedly some take pride in idiosyncratic ratings, a display of unusual taste. Occasionally, the website will mix things up a little: they’ll add the first page of one published work, to see if readers can spot the black sheep. The first time this happened to me, the Verne entry was obvious. It’s unfair to the authors, since published works usually undergo extensive editing, but the difference is plain to see.

All this got me to thinking about how writers begin stories. To some extent, it’s obvious—hook the reader, hook the reader, what every writing instructor has told his students for centuries. And some authors make this objective crassly obvious. Take, for example, the systematic opening murders of Dan Brown and Lee Child novels, the Law & Order style of starting with a dead body; or another staple, the birth of a child on a dark and stormy night intruded on by mysterious forces.

But many good books aren’t so blatant about it. A Navy commander is interrupted in post-battle repair work to report to his superior (all right, so he’s on a spaceship, but still). Another man waits in prison to return to his ordinary life. Two witches have a trivial squabble, a ranch manager is briefly mistaken for a stable boy, and an old man visits his wife’s grave. These books have clearly defined opening scenes, but identifying what draws the reader in isn’t easy. This is popular literature, mind—I’m not even going to try applying this paradigm to something like The Sound and the Fury or The Silmarillion or other books that plainly weren’t written to appeal to readers.

(I can hear the Tolkien fans screaming bloody murder right now. Relax, I’m one of you. I loved Silmarillion. But it wasn’t written to sell. It’s essentially a snapshot of Middle-Earth’s history—something that continuously evolved throughout Tolkien’s lifetime. I can guarantee you that J.R.R. didn’t write the Old Testament-style opening to win readers over; in fact, reading his son Christopher’s notes in Unfinished Tales, readers are turned off by the intro. And, really—d’you think any diehard Tolkien fan would put down the book because of the beginning?)

One common element lingers, though: depth. Why did WeBook’s Verne entry stick out like the Mona Lisa on a wall of graffiti? Okay, the use of archaisms like “compeers” and “nation of shopkeepers” did most of the work. But in a book about three men deciding to launch themselves to the Moon, Verne starts out describing the American post-Revolutionary state of military affairs, and particularly artillery affairs, in loving detail. You can tell where he’s going with this, of course. However, the introduction leaves the impression of a larger world working behind the scenes of the story.

Each of the books I looked at did much the same thing. Events occur against a backdrop. The job of the introduction is to place the story within that framework. This is where the formula of Dan Brown fails: for all the gruesome shock value of his introductions, they don’t connect the reader to the story’s world in any way. Some novels go to the other extreme and end up making text of context. It’s hard to find an example to condemn, though: the dystopia Brave New World is direct in its worldbuilding, and Asimov certainly takes every opportunity to return to psychohistorical reasoning in Foundation, but this is entirely justifiable.

The best way to create an impression of depth is probably just to write a deep story. There’s a reason why the first words the author writes aren’t usually the first words of the book, and essay writers often leave the intro for last. My recommendation to WeBook authors: though you only need to submit a page, it should be just the tip of the iceberg.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

D&D: F1rst P0st1!111!!

Hmph. This isn’t exactly how I wanted to start off my regular schedule, by being late. But having no Internet poses a serious obstacle to posting. I might have to make the timing more flexible: Monday-Tuesday, Wednesday-Thursday, Friday-Saturday, or something like that.

Anyway, I can’t imagine how I managed to avoid writing about D&D for a full year, but I did. I got into tabletops via D20 Modern, with a group of high school buds holding occasional RL sessions. After we split up for college, the campaign died—well, it would be more accurate to say we took the brain-dead vegetable off life support. We turned to live chat campaigning and the D&D 3.5 system, but gaming occurs in fits and starts, and nobody can seem to find an open time and commit to it. Currently we’re on indefinite hiatus.

I had considerably more success once I noticed the Play-by-Post forum on the Giant in the Playground website, which I previously frequented for the Order of the Stick webcomic. PbP lacks some of the ambience of face-to-face gaming, but the upsides of flexible time commitment are tremendous. It’s the same reason I play most of my chess on the Facebook client: I don’t have to block out an hour for a chess game (or several for a D&D session), and can instead parcel out my time as it becomes available. In this system I’ve become involved in several campaigns, and I’m having a lot of fun. Progress is slow, of course; that’s the other drawback of play-by-post, the same way a chess game takes days to complete on Facebook. But that means I get more time to think, develop character ideas, and write.

D&D really stimulates my creativity. Lots of it ends up directed at the game itself, of course, but there’s spillover in other areas as well. My previous fantasy posts came not long after I began playing, and it’s no coincidence. It’s another source of regular writing, though hardly one I can claim is improving my productivity. Of course, if I wanted to get really involved in D&D as a creative endeavor I’d DM a campaign, but at that point I have to wonder about how the workload scales. Putting a lot of effort and ingenuity into that sort of project beats doing nothing, but it’s hardly a state of affairs I could maintain for any length of time—and campaigns take months or years.

D&D lends itself to a goodly number of theoretical discussions as well, and I plan to talk about those. Class balance (or rather, the lack thereof), party genders, the alignment system, integrating magic into a campaign world—all these are topics that I can discuss at length. So I probably will, since it means another update gets done on time. We’ll see how it goes.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Time to Write

You know how RL shenanigans often prevent people from updating their blogs? Well, in my strange world, RL issues are requiring me to start posting regularly.

I am a lazy bum. Doubt me? I was supposed to write this post six weeks ago. Indeed, dear reader, you would be inundated with fascinating blog posts, if only I would write them. (I’m modest, too!) Until I do something about this character flaw, I will be essentially unable to get on with my life the way I want to. Sure, there are ways and ways to take the easy ride through life, but they don’t go anywhere interesting. Whatever fantasy stories may say, an interesting life has to be worked for. That lesson has been hitting me upside the head for four and a half years, as activity after activity went under the heading of “Used to do that, didn’t put in the effort to get anywhere, eventually stopped.” When academics went on that list, even I could see there was a problem.

I am also a poor writer. I can turn out a good finished product (readers of my aborted attempt at fantasy storytelling may disagree), but it takes me an inordinate amount of time to get there. This is, to an extent, a reflection of the laziness problem: if I spend hours of writing time arguing on Facebook, nothing gets done. But it’s also a problem in itself.

I have trouble writing without first setting everything out in my head. Every word I set down has been mentally examined to the point where it should sue for sexual harassment. Typing and retyping is standard operating procedure for writers, but I try to juggle all the revision before I write. When this becomes difficult—say, the writing being juggled is a 10-page essay on the moral fiber of the United States—I get lost and end up distracting myself with food and fun as an escape from my confusion. Dr. Keith Hjortshoj, director of Cornell's Writing in the Majors program, describes this pattern of behavior in his book Understanding Writing Blocks:

…writing blocks usually (though not always) occur in the composing phase and carry writers back into prewriting activities or diversions. Turning back often feels safer than moving ahead, which might produce bad writing as evidence of our ignorance and confusion, or create messes we can’t untangle. Better do some further reading, make further notes and outlines, or simply take a break to think about the task.

I was lucky enough to be able to meet with Dr. Hjortshoj once to discuss my own writing difficulties. He told me bluntly, “You have to write crap.” Because when I focus on writing well, the keyboard is silent while I endlessly ponder how to proceed, and when I finally complete a sentence or two, I engage in notwriting to get away from pondering. Let a spiral staircase represent progress achieved through the cycles of writing and revision: I have been trying to pull myself straight up, rather than walking step by step. If I instead allow myself to write poorly, I can produce more with less effort, and then revise to improve the quality.

Writing on this blog will hopefully help me kill two birds with one stone. In setting a regular update schedule, and keeping to it, I discipline myself. In putting together reasonably lengthy posts, I practice the processes of writing.

So, I am committing to a Monday-Wednesday-Saturday update schedule. Drop by, read what I write, berate me for not writing…wait, I forgot, I probably don’t have a readership. Well, I’ll be berating myself, so that’s all right. Stay tuned!