Irrational Behavior Isn’t Random

Every now and again, someone will try to defend a fictional character’s incoherent actions by saying that it’s because of realism and that real people don’t always behave rationally. While it’s true that real people don’t always behave rationally, they still have some reason for doing things. It might not be a good reason, but there is reason, and it is the storyteller’s job to explain that reason. Characters can make dumb moves for no better reason than “it was the middle of a gunfight and they didn’t have time to think of something better” or “they’re unreasonably suspicious and think everyone is lying to them, so they don’t trust their partner even despite all the times their partner has come through for them,” or “they really want treasure and are willing to take absolutely suicidal risks to get some.”

Each of these three examples leads to predictably sub-optimal behavior. Someone who tends to lose their head in a fight will frequently make dumb mistakes when fists and/or bullets are flying, someone who’s unreasonably suspicious will be unreasonably suspicious of everyone, someone who’s suicidally greedy will be suicidally greedy for all treasure. And if these motives are set up in advance, no one but idiot pedants will try to nitpick their motives as not making sense.

Even actually diagnosably crazy people have reasons for taking non-optimal actions, even if that reason is “because I’m certain this Kwik-Mart manager is a pawn of the alien conspiracy spying on me.” If there really were an alien conspiracy spying on a plucky investigator through alien spies wearing Kwik-Mart manager skinsuits, it would make sense to avoid that Kwik-Mart’s whole block and maybe sneak there in the middle of the night and burn the whole place down. That’s an insane delusion, but the actions taken as a result of that insane delusion make sense.

The vague, ambiguous statement that “they’re crazy” or “people aren’t always rational” does not excuse characters behaving in a manner that’s contrary to their own goals without explanation. In order for irrational behavior to be used to explain character action, that behavior must emerge from character motivation, because everything used to explain character action must emerge from character motivation.

As one example, when people ask why the protagonists of A Quiet Place don’t just move to the waterfall, saying “people aren’t rational!” is not an explanation. Most people arrive at the “why not move to the waterfall” solution within weeks of watching that movie (if not hours), while the protagonists have had two years and a much stronger incentive to try and find a way to get safe from the monsters. The entire movie revolves around how people have developed methods to hide from these monsters, it is the driving conflict and motivation behind everything that every character does (I mean, except the one guy who gave up and screamed, but that reaction being unusual was the whole point of that scene), and this obvious solution has gone completely ignored. Real people would’ve figured that out and immediately pulled up stakes to get where it’s safe, because that’s what people facing life-threatening danger do. When the Abbotts fail to do that, it makes them less believable as characters and thus makes it harder to care about them. For some people, this problem doesn’t occur to them until after they’ve watched the movie once, in which case it will still impact repeat viewings. For others, it hits them within the space of the waterfall scene and damages the movie as it happens. That’s not a trivial nitpick. It’s a flaw. Characters need coherent motivations and their actions need to flow from those motivations. Just saying “sometimes people are irrational!” does not immediately excuse characters behaving contrary to their goals.

These Kickstarters Look Fun

In an effort to avoid the total implosion of this blog, let’s look at three Kickstarters I’ve happened across recently that look neat.

I’m going chronologically, which means the first one up is also one I’m not sure I want to recommend: Seeds of War. It’s some kind of realm management/mass combat dealy, which is going to have a built-in web app…if you pay a $5/month subscription fee to pay for server hosting. They discussed in an update that there won’t be a downloadable version because they don’t want users to have to download a patch every time it gets updated. Which, uh. That sounds dumb enough to cast concerns over the team’s general competence to the point where I’m reconsidering my pledge. The other end of things is that I really like realm management systems so I figure I’ll give this one a go in the hopes that it might be an interesting failure even if it does crash and burn. There’s nothing stopping me from just using the .pdf without ever touching their web application (my current plan), so we’ll see how that goes.

Now that I’ve set expectations very low, let’s soar over them by talking about Almost Real, a 60 page illustrated book (available in .pdf format) about creatures that didn’t evolve, but could’ve. The first one is already a thing, but rather than buy it at full price I backed this Kickstarter at the $15 level to get .pdfs of both. They’ve already made one of these things, so I see no reason to suspect they’ll fail to deliver this one, and the premise sounds fun.

Finishing on the one I am most looking forward to and which also has the most time left before its deadline, Spellcaster University is a video game in which you build Hogwarts in order to raise a graduating class of wizards strong enough to defeat Sauron. I’m not sure how much depth it’s going to have, but it does look like it’ll have a reasonably charming art style and lots of fun customization options, so whether or not the gameplay proves particularly engaging, I’m willing to back it on the basis of being a build-your-own-Hogwarts kit even if fighting Sauron comes down to, like, spamming fire wizards or something.

Tune in Friday, when I may or may not have posted more Threadbare and will probably keep this blog alive by posting about Kickstarters I’ve backed which are already finished or something.

NPC Arcs

In a tabletop roleplaying game, the PCs are the main characters. This is an important conceit. Players should feel like they’re important. But also they’re usually boring, static character who very stubbornly resist anything like a character arc. Players usually do not create characters with the intention that they will change and evolve in any way except through ever-growing power. If your group is all really invested in narrative and roleplaying and such, you might all sit down together and intentionally create a party where this is not so. Probably your group doesn’t want to do this, though, which means the narrative has be carried entirely by NPC character arcs, and it has to do that without taking the spotlight off of the PCs.

This is tricky, because the PCs are boring, but fortunately you have an ace up your sleeve: Anything that happens to a PC is automatically going to be more interesting to the player running them, because it is happening to them, specifically. While ordinarily having the role of pushing the plot forward handed off to a character who is not changed by that plot at all would be terrible, for the specific medium of TTRPGs it’s actually totally fine.

Side note: There are exceptions to this rule even amongst books and movies. Batman, Paddington Bear, and Samurai Jack change the world around them rather than being changed by it, putting other characters through arcs by forcing their flaws into conflict with their redeeming qualities and hoping their noble ideals triumph over their base instincts. If you want to pull this off outside of a TTRPG, your static protagonist needs to stand for something and be so unwaveringly committed to that stance that they can bend the world around them. As mentioned earlier, though, for a TTRPG your audience will cut the protagonists insane amounts of slack just because they designed the protagonists themselves.

Other than handing off responsibility for plot momentum to the PCs, an NPC’s arc works mostly the same as a (regular, non-static) movie or book protagonist’s would. I’ll drop the standard disclaimer here that this should not be treated as a formula to be rigidly adhered to but rather as loose guidelines that should be followed when they work and discarded when they don’t, although if you need a blog post to tell you that then you’re probably at the level of craft where following guidelines exactly is your best bet anyway.

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Sew You Want To Be A Hero: Magical Tea Party

Chapter 9

The chapter opens with Threadbare’s party trying to figure out how to get into a village as an animator show. Because…apparently they can’t just walk in and be like “‘sup, we’re golems?” My guess is that wandering golems are usually monsters, so the village would react with hostility, but the book doesn’t actually say. In any case, Threadbare’s got a lesser golem carved into the rough shape of a human and wearing gloves and hood and so forth so that “she” will look passably like the animator leading the show.

While he’s trying to get the voice right, we get this bit:

“You’ve got decent volume, just… I don’t know, work on the voice a bit. Remember how Celia was. Only older.”

“Like Zuula,” the plush orc grinned.

“Sweet Nebs no, don’t try to talk like Zuula.[“]

Is the book actually noticing that its accents are annoying? That’s the least of the problems with Zuula as a character, but still.

Also, isn’t that Garon talking? The lack of dialogue tags (there’s more dialogue after my cut, but no tag) makes it hard to tell, but from earlier context it seems like this is supposed to be Garon and Zuula talking. It’s definitely not Threadbare or Dark Threadbare, and it doesn’t sound like Madeleine’s accent. So why is he calling Zuula by her first name?

Continue reading “Sew You Want To Be A Hero: Magical Tea Party”

Sew You Want To Be A Hero: Dark Side Boogaloo

Cecelia Quest 2

That’s right, after a two-chapter interlude, we’re back to the Dark Side with our favorite Sith apprentice in all of whereverstan.

Cecelia was far, far from Reason, and she hated it.

She had her plate mail, at least,

Look, I don’t mind “chain mail” to refer to what was historically called maille, because the fact is that we’re in the modern era, most people don’t know the word maille (the WordPress spellcheck doesn’t even recognize it, although the WordPress spellcheck also doesn’t recognize “WordPress”), and if you say “chain mail” everyone knows what you’re talking about.

I refuse to make that exception for “plate mail.” Yes, everyone knows what you’re talking about in common use, but it actually makes it significantly harder to explain the word maille to people who are getting slightly deeper into pop history. It’s still not especially difficult by itself, but it does take noticeably more time, and that’s time you could’ve used explaining how Richard the Lionheart’s actual real biography is basically an action movie. It’s pretty straightforward to explain to people “in the actual middle ages this was just called ‘maille,’ but these days we call it ‘chain mail’ or even ‘chain armor’ to avoid confusion with postal services,” and that much harder to say “oh, and also maille refers exclusively to chain mail, and referring to other armors like ‘plate’ as mail was just a mistake from the 70s that caught on.’ These kinds of clarifying preambles force historians to choose between being accurate and being accessible, if you have enough of them they can seriously hurt you in one direction or the other, and history is riddled with enough of them already that every new piece of straw on this camel’s back counts. “Plate armor” is a perfectly good term that doesn’t make ‘maille’ any harder to explain to people.

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Evermore: The Finale That Really, Actually Wasn’t

Evermore claims that it’s big finale would happen on November 3rd. Some of its fanboys passed that claim on to me. I wound up going to Evermore on November 3rd because I figured, hey, it may be Saturday and it will no doubt be way too crowded, but if they do this right I will only need to complete one quest, and if they do it wrong I will not actually have anything to do, so the long lines won’t matter. They did it wrong.

The story of Evermore has been weirdly aimless until now. Plenty of people have helped the Nettletons in the Auctioneer quest and subsequently joined the hunters in the Hunter quest (a decent chunk have additionally completed the other two tarot quests, but they’re more like side quests with little connection to the main plot). By the time I’d got to the end at Halloween I actually assumed that the Fey King plot was going to be multi-arc, to get more use out of that giant animatronic (though I questioned how well he’d stand up to the snow), since the quests we’d completed showed no signs of even getting close to completing it. Lantern bearer Faldo/Falda claimed the Fey King’s true form was out in the woods somewhere and only possessed the animatronic from time to time (a reasonably clever way of explaining why that animatronic is sometimes dormant), early stages of the Nettleton quest (possibly later ones, too?) asserted that Finley had been infected from the woods, and the hunters stated they didn’t let worldwalkers into the woods because it wasn’t safe. It all seemed to be building up to a confrontation in the woods with the source of the plague, if not with the Fey King himself.

That never happened. Really, in the end, we may as well have not even shown up for all that worldwalkers contributed to the actual fight against the Fey King. We ran errands for the Nettletons and Thurgood, which was not a bad way to introduce the problem, but was nothing they couldn’t have done for themselves. I don’t mean in the “I refuse to be immersed” “are we really the most qualified hunters because we spent thirty minutes practicing archery to get one bullseye, I mean, come on” sense, but rather in the sense that the quest literally only required us to deliver items from one to the other. Towards the beginning it at least involved interrogating some vampires in a mausoleum that was allegedly dangerous, but later stages of the quest didn’t even involve that. I did more good for Evermore running fake anti-hex talismans to Duffy because the courage was in him all along than I did in any of the tarot quests.

What did happen was that Wyn Weaver and Wiccam put aside their differences to close the portal – something they could apparently have done just whenever and waited around out of nothing but dislike for one another – but trapped Clara Nettleton on the other side. She’d run in because she was afraid of infecting her new fiance, the barkeep Suds, and they sealed it up behind her. The next day, Thurgood finished his cure, so, not spectacular long term planning skills on Clara’s part. Also, Mother Nature/Mother Earth/Shiri confronted the Fey King in the town square and healed him. I mean, he’s still a giant evil-looking animatronic and not a regular looking fairy, but he stopped being a colossal jerk to everyone. Also, there’s a handful of hints that there are greater evils out in the forest, which will presumably make trouble come December.

I have not directly spoken with any of the champions, however it does appear as though their participation mainly amounted to having front row seats to events that nevertheless played out pretty much completely without their involvement. They stood on stage instead of off to the side, but they were still just watching events play out. I wasn’t there for the earliest bits of the night, however (a quick nap ended with me sleeping through my alarm for over an hour, which gives you an idea of how much extra work I’m doing right now), so the exclusive champion quest may actually have been vital to getting Wiccam and Wyn Weaver to reconcile and close that portal. Even that may or may not have actually been a huge deal. The direction the plot was going earlier was towards the darkness in the forest, where Finely was infected, where the hunters wouldn’t let you in unless you were qualified (and then, psyche, not even then). If the champions got an additional side quest involving Wyn Weaver and Wiccam that still ultimately comes down to just asking the two to kiss and make up, then eh, whatever, that wouldn’t be a big deal, if everyone else got to have their moment where they go into the woods, get chased by a monster, and escape by the skin of their teeth with the final ingredient needed to make the cure (or whatever). If that’s the only conclusion that anyone ever got, then what the Hell, why would you give the build up to that climax to everyone, hold the climax hostage to a contest, and then tell everyone else to come back for the denouement?

The lack of a resolution has been a frequent complaint amongst park guests, frequent enough that I’ve overheard people talking about it on multiple occasions just while wandering around. Now, maybe watching a two minute stage play in which the problem gets resolved without our help ever having been significant is enough for some people, but firstly, I wouldn’t be sure about that, people definitely noticed that the plot had no particular resolution and became aimless after the hunter quest, so betting on the Evermore audience not to notice failures of craft has not been the winning move so far.

And secondly, even if having the conclusion to your allegedly interactive, immersive plot be an uninteractive vignette played out on a stage turns out to be good enough for most people, most people did not actually get that. I was in Evermore when this happened, there were, like, two or three hundred people here for the finale (by which I mean the specific finale events – there were very likely more total guests for that day), but the park brings in 1,000+ on Saturdays alone, with similar numbers on Friday and smaller but still significant populations on weekdays. Even assuming the Saturday crowd is the exact same people coming back weekly every single time, this Saturday’s crowd was not appreciably bigger than the last Saturday I went. It may have even been smaller. This finale did not draw in a whole lot of people like me who usually visit on other days. Speaking personally, even if there had been some kind of climactic quest available today, it still would’ve been a little disappointing, because all of my actual friends in Evermore have been replaced by mysterious dopplegangers. The Wednesday cast isn’t here, the Saturday cast is, and I have to start every conversation with a reminder to the actors that our characters know each other, despite the fact that many of them have never seen me before and most of the exceptions haven’t seen me since preview night clear back on September 8th.

Evermore’s pace grinds to a halt halfway through its story, not simply because there are villains left to defeat (personally defeating the Fey King is impossible simply on the grounds that it can only happen once), but because there is never any climax, nor really any point at which the worldwalkers do something that the townspeople of Evermore couldn’t have done for themselves. I’m entirely willing to meet the park halfway on this kind of thing, and just assume for the sake of suspension of disbelief that becoming a hunter/knight really was an important pre-requisite to entering some kind of haunted house with a plot coupon hiding in the middle, even if the skills tested for and oaths sworn never actually come up. That didn’t actually happen, though. The plot grinds to a halt right before the climax, never resumes, and then Evermore solves its issues on its own initiative. Why did I even show up?

Sew You Want To Be A Hero: It’s Not Ogre Yet

Chapter 7

Our new puppet party is playing grindluck to get their stats up and maybe not get ambushed by random encounters every twelve seconds, while also talking over the situation. They are discussing this book’s favorite subject: Something ~*~mysterious~*~.

[“]So,” [Garon] said, changing the subject, “Have you thought it over?”

“Whee!” Missus Fluffbear said, as she rolled over a few times, and Mopsy let her come to a rest before licking her fur. “What? Oh, that. Yes I have.”

It’s not like I’ve accidentally skipped some context or anything. There’s just no indication of what it is she’s supposed to be thinking over. Threadbare spins its wheels for another paragraph or two before shedding some light:

“I’ll do it. It’s not like I have to choose those jobs right away.” Threadbare nodded approvingly. “It’s only three classes, anyway. That will leave you two more to play around with if you do have to take those jobs.”

But, y’know, not that much light. There’s some kind of class combo that Dark Threadbare is aiming to pull off, but we have no idea what. It’s only after a montage scene (there’s a literal montage mechanic that allows Threadbare to teach Fluffbear stuff over the course of 12 hours that blur past in what seems like seconds) that we find out exactly what they’re referring to:

The newly made doll haunters had had a long conversation with the two greater golems, about how their continued lives were literally dependent upon someone having the necromancer/golemist combo, who was sympathetic to them. Therefore, since Missus Fluffbear had already chosen to be a necromancer, she’d agreed to get the unlocks for animator, enchanter, and golemist. Though they weren’t exactly directions she thought she wanted to go in, she didn’t want to risk her friends dying and having no bodies to return to.

In fairness, this isn’t the very first time this was brought up, since the idea of Threadbare being the only one who can rez them was mentioned earlier, but it was still pointlessly vague considering that they end up explaining exactly what they mean in a few paragraphs anyway.

Continue reading “Sew You Want To Be A Hero: It’s Not Ogre Yet”

Evermore: The Finale That Wasn’t

As I write this, there are two minutes in Halloween left here in Utah, and I’ve just got back from Evermore for my fifth visit. The long and short of it is that I have fully plumbed the depths of what Evermore has to offer and feel like I have a very good idea of what’s going on and how this park works. And how it works it that there just isn’t any kind of finale, not even on Halloween. There was live music and fire dancers and lots of guests in costume, so it’s not like it was a completely typical night, but what there wasn’t was any kind of confrontation phase of the plot. The NPCs seem to be resolving this whole “dark blood” thing almost entirely of their own initiative, making steady progress on a cure with no more assistance from the players past running errands back and forth between the Nettletons and Diet Thurgood the alchemist. To whatever extent there is a climax, it’s gonna be for ten people:

Evermore Champion Page

This here is the page explaining that the exclusive “Champion’s quest” – presumably the actual finale to Evermore’s first arc – is going to be reserved for at best ten people (assuming all ten finalists get to go) and determined based on winning a goddamn social media popularity contest. The “champion of Evermore” is the person whose shallow desire to provoke envy from others drives them most fervently to create effective clickbait – and if it’s not, then that’s because by happy accident the sorting process failed to deliver results. Evermore’s reach might be too limited for Darwinian selection to kick in – or maybe not.

On the bright side, I did come away with some sweet loot:

IMG_20181031_235336

Continue reading “Evermore: The Finale That Wasn’t”

Sew You Want To Be A Hero: Power Gaming

Chapter 6

The party is sifting through the ruins of the toy shop, and the conversation drifts towards Dark Threadbare’s time with the raccants.

“Yes. They gave me to their children to play with, at first. They played rough! It was very dangerous. But when they saw I could move things and carry things they took me from the children and made me work for them. Then I got attacked by those big hatted cloud things one time and beat them up with my spade. That’s when their Chief, the great Hoomin decided I should be in his dungeon. Then you saved me from that. And then some of them were dead out front and I don’t know why.”

So Dark Threadbare was endangered by the raccants, then enslaved by them, and finally abducted – to the point where she refers to Threadbare as unambiguously having “saved [her] from that.” This does not sound like a fun time.

Threadbare twitched. Zuula’s words rang through his mind. Friends don’t lie to friends, mostly. He pondered it for a second, and decided that it would be bad to lie, here. “They were dead because I killed them.[“]

Okay, if this was going to be a character moment, then probably Zuula shouldn’t have reminded us of her total amorality in the same breath she provided what’s meant to be this scene’s moral guidance. This is the kind of minor nitpick that I probably wouldn’t notice if it weren’t reminding me of how atrocious Zuula is, though. Like, if she had a coherent philosophy in which she actually considers some things to be dishonest or dishonorable, then it’d make sense that she’s the one propping up the virtue of honesty. But she was totally on board with using deception to kill her enemies – to the point that the orc culture she draws her “wisdom” from has actual sayings and traditions about it. You could have a culture where “friends don’t lie to friends” is the moral and lying to enemies is fine, but Zuula has already explicitly disclaimed the idea that she attacks enemies because of their actual wrongdoing, and is instead motivated solely by taking what she wants from anyone too weak to stop her. The only definition of “friendship” here appears to be “people you don’t particularly want to hurt,” which means this “moral” is “only lie to people you want to lie to.”

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Writing Dark Stories

Terrible Writing Advice has a video about writing grimdark stories. As the name implies, it is a sarcastic lampooning of bad trends in fiction, especially written fiction. I link to it because it’s a pretty good summary of the problems that exist with how people talk about dark stories. It’s short on solutions, though, aside from the occasional “multiply this advice by negative one” bits.

I think perhaps the most important thing about writing a dark story, though, is to have some kind of actually dark theme that you’re building to, and that lacking this theme is why most of these “then the puppy died” stories don’t work. The substance of a dark story is to explore a depressing aspect of the human condition. Dead puppies is just style – copy the style without the substance and people will notice the writer’s a poseur.

It’s not hard to think of dark themes that could support a dark story. Here’s a freebie: Most people adhere to a set of morals because society punishes deviation from them, and would abandon those morals in the heartbeat it takes to come up with a dumb excuse if doing so ever became the easy path. Here’s another: Powerful societies concentrate resources in one place, which leads both to scientific and philosophical progress and to terrible abuse of those in the outgroup of that society, and thus human progress is eternally locked to human suffering not because one is a product of the other, but because they’re both side effects of the same process. Here’s a third: Nepotistic favoritism is a natural result of the principles of loyalty and friendship that we consider praiseworthy in every other context, and the lack of which most people would consider a warning flag for an untrustworthy leader – despite also considering the inevitable results of their presence to be corrupt.

These are depressing themes. If you write a book about how nepotism is the inevitable result of giving power to someone who believes in sticking with their friends, you will write a dark book that makes people feel the way early seasons of House of Cards did. Probably not as much unless you’re really good at writing, but same basic concept and being unfavorably compared to the first few seasons of House of Cards is praising with faint damnation. If you write a book full of dead puppies, then your writing is just dull. Happy Halloween.