Saturday, March 24, 2012

D&D Next: Conquering the World (Part One)

Villains come in many shapes and sizes.

As Roger Ebert had put it:
"Each film is only as good as its villain. Since the heroes and the gimmicks tend to repeat from film to film, only a great villain can transform a good try into a triumph." 
When designing a D&D campaign, I usually start with the main villain. The villain's story, motives and goals usually provides a good framework for the campaign. I then ask the players to create stories for their characters. Weaving the stories I got from my players into the framework I created using the villain's story produces the complete campaign.

After I kick start the campaign, I allow the players to take the reins and direct the story the way they want.

Sometimes, that approach allows the villain to win.

How does that happen? Well, a good example is the movie Seven. The good guys know that something sinister is going on, but they don't know to what end.

In my D&D campaigns, sometimes the players fall into the same pit. The villain is one step ahead, either because they fumble around trying to understand what's going on (allowing the villain more than enough time to do his thing), or because they are chasing down their own story lines. When that happens, I sometimes come to a session that takes place half-way into the campaign only to find out that the bad guy has conquered the world. Now what?

Interestingly enough, it happened in real life too. Not that I think that TSR, Microsoft. Google, Facebook or Apple are evil, but each of those companies conquered the world in its own way, or is going it right now. Heck, right now Apple employs more workers than most of the world's armies!

If the villain "wins", what does that mean? For that matter, what does that mean if he "loses"? I need to know when to end my campaign, but since the villain's story is not the story told by the players, the campaign does not have to end with the villain winning (or losing, for that matter).

Since D&D is a shared storytelling game, the campaign should end when the players' story feels finished. This is why I plan for the villain to win, as much as I plan for the villain to lose. While a losing villain is easier to handle, a winning one can be much harder.

How do you keep the story going? What does the villain do after winning? What does his winning moment look like? What does his winning mean to the players, and to the rest of the world?

I'll give you a hint - I look at the same real life examples above for inspiration. More on that in a following post...

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Writing a 300+ Pages Novel In An Hour

Most of us don't have a lot of time on our hands. We also don't own a time machine (unless you own a Mac).

So how can an amateur writer like me and you actually write a book? Even if we have this great idea for a book, we also have jobs, families, kids, hobbies, and many more obligations that keep us from sitting at our desks staring at our word processors.

Even if we get to sit down for a writing session, the mare thought of those empty 300+ pages waiting to be filled can paralyze even the most determined author-to-be. With a task so monumental, many just don't even start.

So what can we do?

We can start writing, and keep on writing.

"But," I can hear you say. "I don't have time! and if I do, it's by the end of the day, when I am tired and all done for the day..."

I hear you, I've been there myself. Hell, I've been there myself yesterday. After finishing all my daily chores at 22:00, my head spun, and I could barely make sure my kids didn't throw their blankets off in their sleep. Writing? Now? Hmm, I think my laptop needs a recharge. Better do it tomorrow.

But then I thought about that small mathematical formula, the one that can help you write a 300+ pages worth of a novel in one hour. Ready? here it goes:

(1 Page a Day) X (365 Days in a Year) = 365 Pages Novel by the end of the year.

Keeping in mind that formula, I sat down - in my bed, with my Mac charging - and wrote that single page (and yes, it takes about an hour). Sure, it wasn't that beautifully crafted scene I wanted to have by the end of the day, but it got me closer to that far away goal of mine - a book.

Since we don't look back while writing, we need to keep in mind that the time for revisions will come. The first stage of writing a book is sheer output. So even if you don't have time, even if you are tired, even if you just returned from that heavy holiday family dinner - sit down and write that single page. See past the challenge instead of staring at it.

You'll thank me a year from now.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Apple and D&D Next

Apple is well known for its tendency to tightly control the aspects of both software and hardware to produce the experience they want you to have.

It's got to a point in which their products were considered as targeted at a smaller elite due to pricing and design. Being asked about it, Steve Jobs shot back his famous "we just can't ship junk" punch-line.

In order to make Apple's product shine, Steve Jobs focused on controlling every aspect of the product, making sure that no-one (not even the users) will be able to take his beautifully crafted iPhones, iPads and iPods and make them something they are not. Hence, the iTunes limitation, no USB connector etc.

If you're a fan of Apple and its products, you realize that in order to get that experience, you have to cope with the fact that some key decisions about how the product is going to be used were taken for you. If you're not a fan, well, you have plenty other alternatives to choose from.

With D&D Next, Wizards is opening the design process (or at least make it semi-transparent) and allowing "users" (players and dungeon masters) to participate and make their voice heard before the product hits the shelves. I don't know how many design decisions are changed according to actual "user" input in the case of D&D, but judging from the D&D Next community site, it seems that somebody listens.

But will this open design approach will make Wizard "ship junk"? If Wizards change even ONE design decision based on users' input, then D&D is not longer a product of careful consideration, design and play-test (and yes, I do believe that AD&D, 3e and 4e went through that cycle). The experience of D&D might be modified according to the whims of its most vocal users out there, and according to some of the posts I see in the forum, some are vocal indeed.

If Wizards try to build the "one size fits all" D&D version using raw input from the community, they might end up with something that looks like it was conceived in Frankenstein's lab, a monster created of incompatible parts bolted together in a bloody, scary heap.

There is a lot of skill in Wizard's offices - no doubt about that - but I would rather use a system that was designed and built to provide a great role-playing experience, than to use a system that was built to satisfy the needs of the most vocal player or DM in the community.

Questions about the roll of skills,  hit points and high level play are too important to be put in the hands of the community. D&D is not about mechanics. It's about an experience around the table with some friends. But the mechanics contribute a lot of the "feel" of D&D, so I'd rather have a designer thinking about that feel instead of making a decision based on some anonymous gamer's light finger on that "Vote" button.

What do you think?

Friday, March 2, 2012

Writing a Book

If you never wrote one, the mission seems impossible.

You won't believe how many first attempts I have, stored somewhere in a virtual drawer. More than dozens. I can still remember some of these attempts, sitting down with my laptop open, writing the first couple of pages with enthusiasm, then real-life kicks in and the story is lost and forgotten. By the time I get back to it, it looks (and reads) bad, and I drop it.

I kept telling myself that I can do it. After all, I was making up enough plots and stories to fill years of role-playing as a Game Master. I filled notebooks (both virtual and physical) with notes, places, characters and interesting stories. Why can't I write a book?

As it turned out, I can. I signed up for last NANOWRIMO, and I actually got a novel out of it. My own 240+ pages of fantasy literature, as amateurish and unrefined as it is.

It turns out that it can be done, but in order to pull it off, you have to remember a very simple rule that is very hard to follow:

Keep writing.

Sounds simple? Well, it's not. You need to keep writing no matter what. No revisions, no looking back. Just keep...on...writing.

I followed that rule to the last minute of my NANOWRIMO effort, and it payed off big time. I let the story take its own course, I freed my characters to do as they please, and after 30 days I had a complete novel. And in my humble opinion, IT'S NOT THAT BAD.

Sure, it's full of typos and bad english (I'm not a native english speaker). Some of the scenes are not very well thought of. Some of the characters are not three-dimensional. But if you look at it as it is, raw and unpolished, it passes muster, even if the writer sucks.

But you know what? I can suck less every year. As Jeff Atwood puts it:

We all write shitty software, but only the best developers realize they're doing it. 

Being a software engineer, I understand what he's trying to say. The point is not to write the best book ever in your first, or second attempt. Since I'm not doing this with a skilled editor and the support of a publisher, any attempt at writing a book will be anything BUT professional. So instead of aiming high and hitting nothing, we better write what we can, and try to improve from one chapter to another, and from one book to another.

So write! and keep on writing. Forget about the quality of your efforts, because if you don't, you'll never get anything done. Trust me, I've been there. Just write, get the story out. Get the WORDS out, and once you have that fat pile of (virtual) pages resting on your table, you can lean back and enjoy your achievement, and start thinking about your second book.

False Gods

My participation in NANOWRIMO proved to me that I can write a book. It's not a masterpiece - far from it, but it's a start. Every once in a while I pull it off my shelf (I've got a single copy I got for free) and I flip through the pages. Since it has been some time since last November, I keep finding new things that I don't even remember I wrote.

It's a peculiar experience, finding something new in a book you wrote yourself. I believe that the way I wrote it has something to do with it. Since NANOWRIMO is all about writing 50K words in 30 days, and these 30 days were also 30 days of a full time job as a software engineer, in addition to me being a father to two very energetic kids and trying to be a worthy husband, I found myself punching out my daily word dues in a semi-consciouse state.

Well, something tells me it's time to start writing another book, this time reaching a cap of 100K words, but without the overdrive.

And it already have a title: False Gods.

I am still working to clean up the mess of a plot I have in mind, and outlining the fantasy world the plot takes place in, but I have a start, and very soon I'll have a first chapter.