Chad Perrin: SOB

21 November 2009

Progress: A Novel Thing

Filed under: Geek,RPG,Writing — Tags: , , — apotheon @ 12:47

(TL;DR Summary: I'm writing a novel that started out as a way to develop a roleplaying game setting. I haven't let the NaNoWriMo pressure to write 50K in 30 days influence me, but I've already written more than 50K words of the novel anyway. I plan to keep writing until the whole story has been told.)

This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.

On average, I've been writing something in the neighborhood of 2,500 words a day this month. There have been days I basically wrote nothing (including the first couple days of the month, when I was still trying to find inspiration for a story), and days that I wrote around six or seven thousand words. I haven't really been paying too much attention to my actual rate; I just occasionally divided the number of words in my story so far by the number of days that have passed, for the most part.

A friend of mine who I started out using as a sounding board for ideas has become something like my biggest fan. He's the only person reading the story so far, and every single day that I see him online he nags me with some good-natured haranguing exhortations to write more story right now dammit. He keeps wanting to see what's going to happen next.

Why I Don't Care About Word Count

I didn't really set out to write 50K words this year, per se. I've been working on fleshing out the details of a new campaign setting for Pathfinder RPG, and I decided to use NaNoWriMo as an excuse to help me find more inspiration toward that end. I had run into a bit of a roadblock in terms of figuring out what I wanted to put in some of the territory on the map, and decided that writing a story that takes place in this setting might help me figure out what will be there. It's working pretty damned well.

Of course, my secondary goal is to have a complete, and (after another draft or two) hopefully good, story when I'm done. Between those two goals — developing the campaign setting and spinning a ripping yarn — there isn't really a whole lot of room left to dedicate myself specifically to the task of hitting a specific minimum word count. I didn't want the pressure to perform, to achieve 50K words (that's about 150+ pages of a paperback novel), to compromise my primary and secondary goals at all, so I just decided that pressure to produce word count was not going to matter to me. To hell with that. It's about what I produce, and not just too much. Velocity is the important factor, not just speed — because no matter how fast you go, if you're headed in the wrong direction, you'll never get to your goal.

As CS Lewis put it:

We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.

Of course, just refusing to head down the wrong road in the first place is probably the preferable option in that case.

The Competition

Our NaNoWriMo region has an annual friendly competition with a neighboring region. We talk trash at each other in the forums and compete on the basis of both average word count and percentage of "winners" (that is, people who have crossed the 50K mark by the end of November). Participation in the competition is opt-in; one has to post one's intent to be part of the team for one's region by roughly two weeks into the month (or to withdraw by then, if one had been overly hasty in committing to it before realizing that, say, measles or a car crash or a surprise visit from the in-laws would take up too much time in November) in a sign-up thread in the forum. Through what I suppose one could call two "generations" of MLs — sort of a regional NaNoWriMo organizer and "leader" of sorts — in this town, I've participated in that competition every year, and have always finished above 50K and above my region's average word count.

This year, so that I wouldn't have the weight of responsibility to the regional team against the rival region's team to produce great word counts, I decided early on that I wouldn't throw my hat in the ring. That's not the only reason, though.

The Cheater

This year is the first year for a woman who shall remain nameless in this SOB entry as a co-ML. A friend of mine is the other co-ML. Let's just call the woman "Gemma", as a code name for purposes of referring to her.

Last year, which I seem to recall was her first year ever trying to write 50K words in a single month as part of the NaNoWriMo event. She ran into some trouble keeping her word count up to par, apparently, so she started sticking song lyrics into her "story" (not really much of a story at that point, I think) to pad out the word count. Well . . . it's sketchy. I tend to feel like that's marginal behavior at best, and not really in the spirit of NaNoWriMo. A friend of mine who goes to write-ins in November and uses NaNoWriMo as an excuse to write software instead of a novel seems to be working far more within the spirit of the NaNoWriMo experience than someone who just gives up on writing 50K words of story in a month, instead filling it out with song lyrics just to have enough words in a file to pass the automated word count check for validation at the end of the month.

This year, in a position of responsibility as an ML and as our region's primary organizer for the competition with the rival region, she's violating the spirit of things even more. Whereas I just figure that putting song lyrics into a "story" to pad out the word count without actually adding meaningfully to the tale is only cheating yourself under normal circumstances, as the ML she should see that kind of behavior as cheating in the competition. It's not just cheating yourself, but actively cheating in what's supposed to be a friendly competition! It's not winning that really matters, but motivating ourselves to write, and having a way to connect with our fellow writers in another region via a little friendly rivalry.

I said she's violating the spirit of things even more than last year. Yeah. It gets worse. She actually brags about the song lyrics she sticks in her so-called "novel", and also about World of Warcraft chat logs. Yes, really. Even worse, she's telling other people in our region's team in the comptetition about this at write-ins, and encouraging them to do the same thing, apparently. This does not sit well with me at all.

Rather than dirty my hands by association, I took this as yet more reason to ensure I absent myself from the competition with the neighboring region. I refuse to associate myself with what may end up being a hollow victory gained through cheating.

Real Progress

Despite all the reasons I have for not caring about any arbitrary word count goals, I hit 50K words before the 20th this month. I've made some reasonably impressive progress, and I would easily fall within the first ten people (out of 45) to hit 50K in my region's team in the competition with the neighboring region — even ignoring one cheater. In fact, I think I'm the tenth person to hit 50K in the region overall — with 236 people who have it set as their "home region".

We're under a week and a half before the end of the month, so I expect that the rate of people hitting 50K will climb somewhat now. Only the most prolific writers will get there before the end of this weekend. It will be interesting to see how the word war between our region and the neighboring region plays out.

Regardless of that, though, I'm just going to keep writing. I think my story might be about half finished, at just over 50K words. It looks like I'll hit at least 300 pages' worth of prose in this first draft of my novel, and I probably won't finish writing it until at least halfway through December. The beginning of the month of November marked the beginning of my efforts to write a story, but it seems neither crossing the 50K "finish line" nor the end of the month of November will mark the end of my work on this story, unless I suddenly find myself sprinting to the finish in a fit of manic inspiration before the end of the month.

Maybe, if I get it sufficiently polished up with a couple of major edits, I'll even publicly post it online for the world to read (or not, as it sees fit). I don't expect that to happen before next November, at the earliest — but maybe I'll surprise myself, and find that I'm as productive a rewriter as I am a writer.

I'll probably polish up and publicly share the campaign materials as a complete campaign setting, too, if that interests you.

31 October 2009

NaNoWriMo as Campaign Preparation

Filed under: Geek,RPG,Writing — Tags: , , — apotheon @ 07:14

(TL;DR Summary: I've decided to use this year's NaNoWriMo as a means to flesh out a campaign setting.)

This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.

As National Novel Writing Month looms ever nearer, I have been fighting with myself over what to do for the month of November this year. I made the mistake of telling a friend of mine about an idea for a novel a couple of years ago that involves a war on the surface of Mars, and he has been so interested in the idea that for the last two years he has been haranguing me to actually write it for NaNoWriMo. I haven't been able to really capture the inspiration to do so yet, though, so it's still sitting on the back burner.

I was thinking long and hard about tackling it this year but, as time runs out before the end of October, I realized that it just wasn't coming together in my head. I have been hesitant to commit myself to participating directly in NaNoWriMo this year at all, in fact. I think, though, that I have decided I have an idea that I simply cannot allow to lie unexplored, so I'll take a whack at writing 50,000+ words of a novel in 30 days one more time this year.

Velesh Thumbnail

The thing that finally made up my mind (if my decision turns out to actually be final) is the fact that I'm working on the development of a Pathfinder RPG campaign setting I call the Eastern Kingdoms. It takes place in the northern half of the eastern reaches of the larger of two continents on an in-development map of a campaign world called Velesh. The Eastern Kingdoms is an area dominated by squabbling, humanocentric, petty kingdoms. It is a grim and gritty setting, where magic is rare, and dangerous, and viewed with fear and awe. Arcane magic is in fact condemned as witchcraft, and the closest thing to divine magic there is the power gained by trafficking with daemons — which have their own religions, where they are worshipped as gods.

Rather than turn this SOB entry into a rambling, disorganized description of the Eastern Kingdoms setting, I'll get to the point:

Eastern Kingdoms Thumbnail

I have something like two thirds of the territory of the Eastern Kingdoms generally divided up between five kingdoms and an area where smaller political divisions have defected from nearby kingdoms to form a loose confederation of mutually distrustful and fractious pockets of semi-order. I have some details of major religious influences, the recent histories of the various political divisions worked out in broad strokes, and the structure and politics (to varying degrees) of the several kingdoms described in my notes. This is all in preparation for a campaign I am planning that will begin with the PCs as members of a notorious mercenary company that profits from the strife and turmoil of perpetual conflict between the Eastern Kingdoms.

Of course, I still have a third of the territory on the Eastern Kingdoms map to fill in, and a fair bit more flavor and detail to impart to the areas I have already begun describing and defining, before I have things settled enough to provide real depth to PCs' backgrounds. This is where NaNoWriMo comes in, because I plan to start writing a tale set in the Eastern Kingdoms, and use the driving need for 1667+ words per day, as a minimal average over 30 days, to fuel my inspiration as I work on fleshing out the Eastern Kingdoms. With luck, by the time November is over, I will have one of the most richly detailed and flavorful campaign settings I have ever created.

18 October 2009

Two Tricks for Characterization

Filed under: Geek,RPG — Tags: , — apotheon @ 10:07

(TL;DR Summary: I have a Ruby script that generates random NPC information. It's far from perfect, and very superficial. I'm working on ideas to add randomized inspiring personalia tidbits for helping develop NPCs with more depth on the fly.)

This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.

Creating NPCs with a sense of depth can be a difficult challenge for a GM sometimes. Even those of us who are good at it when we feel inspired can — and do — easily run afoul of dry spells. Little bags of tricks can collect in the dusty corners of three ring binders, hard drives, and our twisted minds, to help manufacture that depth. Questionnaires that one can fill out to get a sense of an NPC's youth and family life, perusing newspaper headlines for ideas about formative experiences, drawing on the experiences and personalities of the people around us, and (unfortunately) trite cliches can all be counted among the tools in many GMs' toolboxes when it comes to building an NPC that is more interesting than a set of stats, a physical description, and a facial tick or funny accent.

I've written a stupid little script (in Ruby, natch) that generates character stats, simple physical descriptions, and a couple other ephemera, for when I know I want an NPC but don't necessarily know what I want. It's handy for populating taverns and the like, sometimes. Sometimes, it gives me results that are less than strictly wonderful. It really is random, because I haven't yet come up with a very good algorithm for getting things to fit together in a reasonable manner. Black women with blonde hair, green and violet eyes, and other (should-be) rarities come up all too commonly. Of course, I can always run it half a dozen times and pick out a bit or two from each result to create a whole NPC, if I want to change some details without having to think too hard.

There isn't a hell of a lot of depth in most of the information, though. It's superficial stuff, for the most part. Something like this doesn't lend itself to rich characterization:

Male Dwarf Fighter
with cornrows of silver hair,
intense hazel eyes,
a sallow complexion,
a lean build,
and a vulgar demeanor

  ST  17
  DX  12
  CN  15
  IN  9
  WS  6
  CH  9

That's exactly how the output looks. The best I've got going here is some naive stat prioritization for classes so you don't end up with this Dwarf Fighter's Strength being the 6 and his Wisdom being the 17. Other than that, it's mostly just random, and worse yet it's all superficial. I've been meaning to incorporate some more stuff, and work on a less naive stats-for-classes prioritization, but haven't gotten around to it.

It's difficult to come up with something I can produce with a random concept generating script that lends real depth to NPCs, though. I mean, sure, I could come up with a few character concepts with depth, but if I do that I might as well just use them rather than put them all in a database and end up with every eighth character having exactly the same background and motivations.

A couple of interesting possibilities for character depth inspiration that have occurred to me, though, are important objects and motivating emotions. Almost every character should probably have at least one object that's important to him or her (even if he or she doesn't physically have it at the moment), and almost every character should have one deep-seated value that motivates at least some of the character's actions, with some kind of deep emotional underpinning. Perhaps a letter from one's lost love holds a special place in one's belongings, tucked between the pages of one's spellbook, or perhaps it's a four-leave clover found while playing with other children in childhood during happier days that is pressed between those pages. Maybe regret for having failed to reconcile with one's father before he passed away taints one's view of the world, or maybe a desire to prove oneself better than one's origins makes one driven to excel — or to harass and demean those who remind one of unhappier times.

If someone doesn't have any valued objects or deeply rooted emotional influences, that in itself should be a remarkable, powerful indicator of that character's personality. What desolation is it that drives one to view the world so numbly? What did the NPC flee to pursue a path of renunciation of all worldly attachments? A distinct lack of such an object or emotional influence should perhaps come up very rarely — or maybe I should just settle on that when the script absolutely can't come up with an object or emotional influence that I like for the NPC.

I think inspiration for these characteristics of an NPC's personalia can be kick-started by randomly selecting from broad categories of generic objects and emotions — especially if one branches out from the obvious and boring. "Love" and "hate" are kind of lifeless, because they're so overused, but shame and worry can be much more evocative. A letter or preserved plant, as I indicated above in my examples, is much less common and trite than a locket or a father's sword. Sure, I'll include the love, the hate, the locket, and the sword in my options, but such overused tropes will be heavily outnumbered by the less worn-thin alternatives.

I just need to remember to work on coming up with good lists of objects and motivating emotions some day soon. Wish me luck.

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All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License