Writers Block?!

“I don’t believe in writers block.  Do plumbers get plumbers block?”

— Django Wexler

So writing has been my new big hobby.  I am now running two campaigns and write in one of two blogs each week.  I am slowly drafting a real book or novella.  I am in the middle of Story by Robert McKee, a book about crafting story and making the most of your words.

I was bound to encounter this writers block I kept hearing about.  And its proving a difficult thing to overcome!  Specifically I’m encountering this with the Rogue Trader campaign.  I have a ton of content written up already and is just waiting for me to flesh out, but the last story arc of the campaign is eluding me.  I’ve work-shopped it a couple times, and the ideas are pretty alright, but I’m having quite a time trying to fill out interesting and unique quests.

Past posts I’ve made have put forward the strong ideas I have about narrative and goals in story writing.  My goals for the Rogue Trader campaign are to have a campaign that my players have a vested interest in, and I always want it to be actionable by the players.  The moment that I run a campaign and I’ve talked for more than five minutes I feel like I’ve failed.  Its a role playing game, and I never want to have my players become bored listening to me talk.

I want to keep my players engaged, and much like a video game, I keep trying to play to their innate desires as characters and players.  Players want to have fun and do things while their characters can have fun, emotional arcs through the story.  My players with few exceptions give me very little to work on that front.  I’ve asked them for more to work with and I’ve begun role-playing exercises meant to try and make them think about their characters in complex ways.  However, this has availed me very little.

I press on though, and that’s suitable.  I feel like I’ve blown through all of my unique ideas though.  The remaining ideas I have for quests don’t align or link up to form grand, overarching ideas.  It feels mishmashed and I hate it.  The quests I want to write have interconnecting threads, themes, and motivations that make sense and are possible.

I don’t want to fill in the blanks with meaningless filler just to navigate towards something I want to do.  Tools like that cheapen the effect I’m going for.

I hate NPC’s that have emotions or motivations that translate to “convenient for the GM.”  Having combat encounters for the sake of keeping the players entertained is almost always a poor idea, at least in Rogue Trader.  If I have a hive gang attack because they are looking to score some cash, the players will assume that they must’ve been sent by somebody.

I can’t really elaborate on the questline I need to flesh out because one to two of my players read this and it would be wiiiiiiiiild spoilers.  I have some cool moments I want to navigate through and I don’t want to rob them of the experience.

There are a number of things I’ve read about doing to try and clear my problem but it doesn’t feel like it works.

  • Keep writing anyway.  Stuck on one part?  Write another until the problem clears itself up!

My issue is that my next big hurdle is campaign order and structure.  Which quests happen in which order.  Since I don’t even know what the individual quests hold, I can’t even do placeholders!  Maybe I’m over thinking it?

  • Back up and try something else.  Write a bunch of scenarios and see which one is the best!

This has failed me.  All the scenarios I write feel like they lose something personal and begin to feel like filler.  If a scene or an act doesn’t have a premise and a meaningful conclusion I feel like its pointless.  Now I get as a role-playing game these things can be fun because the players make it their own but all I keep coming up with is “Go to location.  Do the thing.  Return.”

But its Rogue Trader so I need to try and write things in such a way that the players don’t fly away out of boredom or blow it all to hell.  This is why Dark Heresy is the #1 Warhammer 40k system: there are no fucking spaceships.

  • Don’t try and jump in and write.  Make the outline, then the draft, then write it.

I love this one, and its how I actually usually write my quests.  This is what I’ve been currently trying but since I’m stuck with even the core idea of the quest line I still feel stuck, even when I begin to list out segments and settings.

On top of all of this: the campaign is continually marching on.  I can’t take a month to work on it since my players expect to play every other Saturday.  And if I take a month off to work on it, something else will fill that RPG void and I’ll lose my platform to run my campaign.

I acknowledge that I’m probably wildly overthinking this.  My difficult has always been brainstorming and coming up with ideas.  I’ve never felt deeply creative.  Many of my friends are an endless font of inspiration and ideas, but I feel like I struggle to even come up with set pieces.

My players are finally on the trail of the story at large.  I’m hoping this is the event that kicks my brain into gear.  I usually produce good work at the eleventh hour.  I learned this in college- all nighters were my bread and butter.  I don’t want to work that way, but we will certainly see what happens.

-DTM

Telling a Story: HTTYD v. Monster Hunter

A new Monster Hunter game comes out soon and I’m fucking pumped.  I love that game!  The most recent one, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate (MH4U), was super great and it might be my favorite one!  I dunno though- Freedom Unite on the PSP was pretty glorious.

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That monster is the best no matter what Ellis cries about.

The one thing that stands out to me as a huge glowing weak spot in MH4U was the single player story.  The game isn’t an RPG, but they certainly try to make it one.

Monster Hunter’s formula is: you hunt monsters, you collect parts, you make better armor, you use said armor (and weapons) to fight stronger monsters.

The single player story puts way too much into trying to make you understand why you are hunting them.  They try to make me invested in the people and the town when I really don’t fucking care.  I wanna go fight badass monsters and make bitching weapons so I can see what the next monster is!  I don’t give three shits about your town.

The single player story essentially is: talk to village people, they make requests for parts, you hunt monster, you get prize.  That’s perfectly fine- I enjoy hunting monsters for my own reasons, so I might as well hunt them for profit.  But MH4U had a long story line about how the village is threatened and blah blah blah.  I can’t honestly fucking tell you because every time someone starts talking about some shit I skip it all.  I don’t care!  I heard “There’s a new monster…” and I was fucking checked out!

It wouldn’t be a problem but they talk forever.  Its the goddamn owl from Ocarina of Time.

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“Don’t say ‘No’ this time.”

I’ll do another article how much I fucking love this game, but what I really want to talk about is how to tell a story.  I’m not a script or story writer, but as one who values experiencing a story there are definitely ways to make it fucking better.

You’re stories need to be about the experience as much as they are about the story.  If you spoon feed me the specifics about whats happening it makes me feel outside of whats happening.  That’s what happens in MH4U.  All I want to do is kill monsters, but you are making me sit down so grandpa can tell me about how he used to kill monsters when he was young and god I want to skip this sentence as I’m writing it.

If you want me to feel the pressure about monsters destroying the village- have them destroy the village.

How fucking pissed would you be if you failed to kill or stop a monster and it tore ass through the village and now half of the stuff I need is under repair.  Fighting monsters would have a new level of nut-sack on fire intensity if I knew that failure meant things would affect me.

But no- they’d rather have this guy talk for 1,000 years.  The monster destroyed the village while he was talking about the monster destroying the village.

This method is used a lot in Shounen animes.  Dragon Ball Z, Soul Eater, and Bleach come to mind.  It doesn’t inherently make them bad, just unsophisticated.  Its that formula of Character A is doing something and Character B is explaining what they see (even if they are alone).

An example of how to tell a story without a couple gallons of exposition is How to Train Your Dragon.  Dean Dublois is a fucking hero.

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He also worked on Mulan and Lilo & Stitch.

Now I know I’m comparing story telling elements in a game versus a movie, which can’t fundamentally be the same thing- but keep with me.  The overarching point I want to make is “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

I ain’t even gonna explain How to Train Your Dragon (HTTYD) because hopefully you’ve seen it.  If you haven’t I have significantly failed you as a brother.

Every scene in that video we understand promptly.  We understand Toothless and Hiccup separately, but also together.  The very end shows Hiccup trusting Toothless enough to look away with his hand out, and then Toothless leans forward and touches it with his snout.  Now- we could have a character from behind a bush be like, “Oh my gawd they understand each other and Hiccup is learning that they aren’t mindless beasts!”

But that doesn’t happen; so we all remember that and feel uplifted because we experience it with the characters.

By necessity the story is going to have a lot more visual storytelling because dragons can’t talk.  But that’s what makes the movie so great.  Words are more easily forgotten than seeing something and Dean knew that.  Its why Toothless is so expressive.

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Is that fucking owl still talking?

You take one quick look and you can tell whats going on.  He doesn’t have to have Hiccup voice Toothless’ every thought.

Dean trusts that he can put enough points out that we’ll just naturally connect them.  And when he establishes this with the viewer we get adorable sequences where there’s no talking- only happy memories.

And then he uses this as a powerful story telling tool.  As the audience, we know shit is very, very wrong when Toothless looks like this:

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“OH NO ASTRID, SOMETHING’S WRONG WITH TOOTHLESS!  THE OTHER DRAGON MADE A CRACK AT HIS MAMA!”

Dean wasn’t explaining to us why we should be worried, he was appealing to our experience so far as a moviegoer.  We’ve only seen Toothless have almost human like expression- and now Dean is finally showing us that Toothless is actually a fucking scary dragon.

And this contrast involves no dialogue.  Now obviously he has the characters respond to it in the movie but it mirrors our own.  We experience this at the same time as other characters in the movie.

I mean- these examples are pretty straightforward.  Maybe I’m not making my point.  Lets compare it to this:

Literally laying out a plan in front of the enemy seems fucking silly.  It’s not the end of the world but he could’ve just said like “Everyone know the plan?  Go!”  They could all rush off and we, the viewer, are left to discover what is is.

We can get excited when we start to realize and figure it out.  Why lay it all out?  Things are more exciting when you don’t know everything.  Its like sex- its not exciting if my explanation takes longer than the act itself.

Dean Dublois uses this stuff to great effect in HTTYD.  Since they are CG movies he’s able to carefully sculpt each scene to be full of symbolism and subtly.  He tells a lot more with less words because he sets it all up.  He treats each component of the story as its own character.

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Old Yeller ain’t got shit on Stoic.

You watch this scene.  Its somber, the music is low, everyone’s sad.  But this part of the movie is a turning point for Hiccup and he gives an emotional speech.  It couldn’t be more inspiring, but the idea behind the scene was that Hiccup is standing in the shadow of his fathers light.  He’s afraid, and he feels alone- but we see this on screen.  We don’t need someone from Sequelitis popping up to inform us what’s going on.