Taking Zero

FUDGE_4dF_probabilityMost RPGs are predicated on the 50% success rule. Heroes will succeed half the time they attempt a task. Fate Core takes a quantitatively different approach by predicating on the 100% success rule. Heroes are equal to any task which they attempt to undertake. The static skills test throws the differences between the two approaches into stark contrast and highlights the effectiveness of each.

The 50% rule is seen most clearly in skill tests against a static difficulty. Pathfinder and the d20 games even have an option for players to automatically succeed at tasks within a certain difficulty range. This is known as Taking Ten or Taking Twenty because it assumes an average die roll. This type of mechanic evolved from the roots of the game as a tactical simulation, under the philosophy that success should be based on tactical choices rather than luck. When adapted for dramatic simulation, the die roll represents the effort of the characters in a very real way.

Fate Core also includes the option to bypass the die roll in order to assume success of any static difficulty which is equal to or less than the character’s skill. We will call this rule “Taking Zero”. Like Pathfinder, it also assumes an average die roll. The Fate Core book instructs players that dice should only be rolled when the outcome is in question or degrees of success or failure will make the game more interesting. It is, in effect, the same rule.

How does this change our approach to the game?

IdealIf this were an exam, Pathfinder would be Pass/Fail, and Fate Core would grade on a curve. When you Take Ten or Take Twenty, your character may succeed at progressively more difficult tasks without undue stress. The opportunity is limited by the circumstances under which a character may choose to Take Ten or Twenty. If your skill is insufficient, you simply fail at the task. Another solution must be found.

The key difference lies in the way that Fate Core penalizes failure. By Taking Zero, your character succeeds at a task, but there is a minor cost. That cost may be expressed as a small penalty to a future action or as a complication within the story. But in Fate Core, success is always an option. Did your character fail the skill test by three shifts? No problem. He succeeds, but the price is progressively higher the greater the extent of failure.

This changes our approach to the game by allowing the characters to always succeed at static tasks but at the cost of future complications. Because the Fate Core system relies primarily on dramatic simulation rather than tactical simulation, the penalty for failure is seldom as straightforward as the loss of Hit Points. In this way, characters accrue penalties and complications to be leveraged against them during the course of the game. Because later penalties are directly related to previous success, this form of resolution creates stronger storytelling by using a callback to previous events. It is one of the tenets of circular storytelling.

Application in Action

In the early game, characters trade initial success for a more difficult challenge down the road. The easiest way to do this is to apply the cost of Taking Zero as an Aspect against the characters that opponents can tag for free in the late game, we’ll call this Stacking Consequences. But this is Fate, and players may well wish to bank negative Aspects which they can tag for Fate points when they start to run low.

In the mid game, Taking Zero keeps the characters on track and prevents derailing due to unexpectedly difficult challenges. It works the other way around as well. When prepping for the endgame, players can accept higher difficulties when Creating Advantages too be used later. In this case, a die roll is still required, but a quick glance at the probability chart shows that even when the target difficulty number is zero the chance of success on the die roll is about 60%.

In the endgame, this principle prevents the action from getting bogged down when a single task becomes critical. Fate Core has a related mechanic built into the system; characters may concede a conflict and retain some control over their fate. Extending this concept against static skill checks lets players essentially “concede” to the difficulty of the task and continue to participate in the story even when their skills have failed.

Taking Zero and conceding a conflict both manage the difficulty of an adventure as it progresses. If the point of the game is to move the action forward and keep the party from getting bogged down in the details, you will find them to be essential tools in your GM toolbox.

“Opposing Forces” is a tactical manual and bestiary of foes for Fate Core. Now funding on Kickstarter! Check it out!

OF Logo - small

Sunstones and Shadowguard

10970782Every so often, I come across a book series that really intrigues me with elements of the setting. Because I really enjoyed his “Keys to the Kingdom” series, I put some faith in Garth Nix and picked up “The Seventh Tower” series.

The six books of the series describe a world in perpetual darkness, where a magical Veil surrounds the planet, forever blocking the sun from the earth below. Above the Veil, the world continues as it has always been. Below the Veil, the planet is shrouded in perpetual ice, cut off from the heat and light of the sun. Bridging the two worlds is the ancient Castle, home of the Chosen, and the foundation of the seven Towers.

The Chosen use magical sunstones to provide light and heat to their home, for only the Towers rise through the Veil to the light. The Castle, as the world below, lies in utter darkness. The Chosen are served by spiritshadows, spirits from the world of Aenir who have been bonded to Chosen and brought back to the Dark World, where they take the form of shadows.

Tal is one of the Chosen, but his father has gone missing, and the responsibility to care for his sick mother and younger siblings has fallen to 13-year-old Tal. Unfortunately, he lacks a sunstone strong enough to journey to Aenir and complete the ritual that will allow his family to rise through the social ranks and continue to live within the Castle as Chosen instead of the servant class known as Underfolk.

When Tal fails disastrously in his attempt to gain a sunstone, he falls from the castle to the ice-covered world outside, where he meets Milla. Milla is an Icecarl, one of a nomadic, viking-like people who follow the great herds of animals in their migration across the ice. The leaders of her tribe assign Milla a Quest to help Tal get home and bring back a sunstone to her tribe. The Quest will take Milla and Tal across the ice, through the darkest recesses of the Castle, and into the spirit world of Aenir to battle against a secret traitor seeking to destroy both the Castle and the world of the Icecarls.

The two teenagers will not emerge from this ordeal unscathed, nor will their beliefs go unchallenged. Both young people must endure, not only physical hardship, but tests of spirit and mind that will change them on a fundamental level.

I think that’s all I can say about the plot in good conscience. But at the same time, this series is written for teens, and plot is fairly straightforward, although dramatic revelations do come at a steady pace that keeps the tension on an upward swing.

I found several things intriguing about this series, starting with the shadowspirits. These come in three kinds: shadowguard, shadowspirits, and free spirits. Shadowguard are spirits that are bonded to children as a mark of their status as Chosen. The particulars are not made clear, but it is implied that this is done by the parents during a journey to Aenir. All shadow creatures come from Aenir. Bonding a shadow to a Chosen replaces the person’s shadow with the spirit, who remains Aeniran while in Aenir, but becomes a shadow in the Dark World. Most Aeniran spirits pressed into service this way are animals of some kind, but a few are … something else. We’ll get to that in a minute. Shadowguard are loyal in the same way as a favored pet, if considerably more versatile and intelligent.

Bound shadowspirits are mostly larger animals, and have many of the same abilities as shadowguard, but are stronger and retain more of their native qualities. One important difference – shadowguard can change shape easily, while most shadowspirits cannot.

Free spirits are Aenirans that have crossed into the Dark World without being bound to a human shadow. These are individual beings, seldom simply animals, with individual wills and agendas.

This leads to the nature of Aenirans. While creatures in the Dark World are just animals, fantastic to be sure, but not possessed of magical abilities, most everything in Aenir is alive. The forests walk around, whirwinds guard sacred treasures, plants act as sentries. A mountain gets up and stretches once a millenium – just to get the kinks out. At one point, Tal holds a conversation with a lake.

The idea of animals and locations having essential and vital spirits is not new. Plato called it the “ideal self”. New Age philosophy imbues everything with its own individuality. And don’t get me started on the philosophical ramifications of the whole Herbie franchise…. But as cool as that is, its not what intrigued me the most. At this point in my jaded readership, that kind of thing just seems like standard fantasy fare. No, I liked the idea of binding spirits to serve as companions and guards, and the possibilities presented by Nix’s use of vague descriptive terms such as “shadow flesh”.

While most of the shadowspirit relationships are presented as owner/pet, or at best master/servant, I can see how this type of relationship would appeal to a teen audience. During a time of life when everything is growing uncontrollably and in strange directions, having one other person upon whom you can depend and with whom you can safely quarrel without fear of rejection or unforgiveness – I gotta say, that’s inviting. There is something essential within all of us that desires that kind of relationship. As adults, we often seek that in marriage and the promise of a family. As Christians, we are promised that kind of relationship with the Holy Spirit. In Nix’s world, the shadows fill this void for the characters, and serve as an essential catalyst for their growth.

The rest of the action really serves as the backdrop for the dynamic relationships between the characters. The magic and setting is cool – I’ll get to that – but it’s the give and take between Milla, Tal, and their shadows that really kept me reading.

Okay, light magic. The Chosen run their entire society around Light Magic, useful in a world where the sun has been cut off entirely. This is basic “Green Lantern” type stuff. They can form force field objects, blast rays of destruction, use limited healing magic, and more basic heating and light provision. It’s cool; Garth Nix makes good use of it, and it makes me want a sunstone of my own, but not especially unsusual for the genre.

The Icecarl society is pseudo-viking-slash-amazon in nature. They live on the ice in a nomadic structure that emphasizes physicality and places little value on intellectualism. I should point out here that the Chosen society is exactly opposite, valueing intellectual development over physical prowess – and Nix doesn’t neglect the literary value of contrasting societies as metaphorical tools, complete with the reactionary, revolutionary, and stagnant contingents.

The main warrior force of the ice-carls is the Shield Maidens, with men performing duties as hunters and legendary heroes. It felt very familiar, like the characters are rebelling against type solely in an attempt to be different or to strengthen the character. This literary device is absent in Nix’s later works, and shows his growth as a writer. In “The Seventh Tower”, it is merely distracting without being destructive.

All in all, I stayed up way too late for way too many nights in order to finish reading this series, but I can’t say I regret the time spent that way. The books read quickly, and are meant for teens while remaining interesting and approachable to adults. I really enjoyed “The Keys to the Kingdom”, and “The Seventh Tower”, although written earlier in his career, was every bit as involving and the world just as fully realized.

I’m not so sure I’d care to share my shadow with any of the real or fantastical creatures I met in this series, but I think I’d like a sunstone, and just a smidgen of Light Magic for coolness.

A Defense of Superman

I understand that some people think Superman is creepy and he makes them a little uncomfortable – he does wear his underwear on the outside of his pants after all. But I want to address this idea of Superman as the Nietzchean ubermensch, when in fact, the character hasn’t ever really represented that ideal.

The identification of Superman with Nietzsche’s ubermensch started in the 50s with the famous book Seduction of the Innocent by Frederic Wertham. Wertham in fact disregarded the notion of ubermensch as “Superman” specifically because the character was not the epitome of the ideal. There are a few important differences in both origin and application of the Superman character.

1) Superman comes from Jewish and Greek roots. Siegel and Schuster were both Jews with a classical education. Their rendition of Superman in the 30s and 40s was meant to evoke Hercules and Samson. The costume came from circus strongman acts popular at the time. It is important to note that both Hercules and Samson derived their strength from a divine source outside of themselves, and so Superman was given an extraworldly origin. Which leads to:

2) Superman is not human. He comes from another planet, and it is due to this non-human status that he has great power, not due to his own efforts or his own virtue.

Though more than 70 years old, and handled by hundreds of creators in that time, these two qualities have been consistent.

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche specifically created the concept of the ubermensch as a way to constrast with an supersede metaphysics in general and Christianity in specific. The ubermensch is a self-created being, using his own strength of will or body to transcend the limits of society and religion. The concept of Will to Power was never fleshed out by Nietzsche, and his modern students can come to no consensus on what he meant by the term, although personally, I agree with you that he meant it as the act of imposing one’s will on another. Unfortunately, without a unifying treatment of the character over the years, I don’t see the “will to power” concept as applying to Superman (or any other superhero) as a defining factor, although it has certainly been used as such in individual stories.

There is a literary device called transposition, where one character seems to uphold a certain value while projecting its opposite on another. In his post-millenial series “Luthor”, Brian Azzarello makes exactly your argument against Superman – that we are dependent solely upon his good will for our safety. This argument is placed in the mouths of self-made men Lex Luthor and Bruce Wayne (Batman), and serves to highlight the virtue of Superman as an external savior whose presence reveals the failings of the best of men (Luthor and Wayne).

Surely, we are far better off looking to Superman as a point of identification when drawing men’s attention to the need for an external savior? Superman is the best of all things, he is everything to which we aspire, and he comes literally from the heavens. This is a fundamental literary device designed to draw one’s attention to the need for an external savior, and I think that serves as an excellent introduction to the one, true savior of humanity.

By the way, if it helps at all, in DC Comic’s “New 52” reboot, Superman will no longer be wearing the red shorts over his pants.

The Sniff Test

An Electronic Nose Estimates Odor PleasantnessWriters love their work, or they wouldn’t be writers. The problem is that writers also tend to love their characters and plot devices, even when those things don’t stand up to close (sometimes even casual) scrutiny. Reviewing a manuscript provides with the invaluable opportunity to put every aspect of your work to the sniff test, using common sense to check the believability of a plot device or a character’s behavior.

Believability is really the key to this test. A common horror movie trope has the victims exploring the boarded up house in the middle of the night, even though they are fully aware there is a killer loose and their flashlight has just run out of batteries. This seems so unlikely as to be ludicrous in any story that attempts to take itself seriously. While it’s true that panicked people can and consistently do make exceptionally foolish choices, this one just isn’t within the range of possibilities. It’s not believable. It doesn’t pass the sniff test.

Does that mean that every character needs to make the best possible choice in every scenario? No; that also fails the sniff test. The reader isn’t actually looking for every choice and every situation to fit the best-plan scenario. The reader actually wants things to follow naturally, or at least to seem like they’re going to follow naturally. The reader wants to believe that this story could unfold in this way, and that these characters will behave in this manner. This benefits the writer in that the reader will tend to be forgiving of small missteps, but it also means the reader is critically judging the story probably far more closely than the writer.

When reviewing a manuscript, the writer must develop the ability to set aside his knowledge of future developments and test each portion of the story as it unfolds. If a portion of the story fails to pass muster, the writer has the opportunity to slap some red ink on the page and fix the problem. The critical test in this case is that any given action must follow logically from the immediate context of the problem, without reference to additional information from other stories or later portions of the manuscript.

One of the key factors at play is the tendency of any given story to be any given reader’s first exposure to this set of characters or situations. This is especially important in series fiction, where characters and settings carry continuity from one story to another; while this can create a larger setting and deeper characterization, it can also leave the reader requiring excessive amounts of additional information in order to enjoy the immediate story. There is a temptation to “data dump” information on the reader so that he is correctly informed, a solution that does not constitute good form in storytelling. In this instance, a better solution would be either trickle the information to the reader in the paragraphs leading to the incident, or rework the context of the situation so that less specific knowledge is required.

Perhaps most often, the sniff test fails when a writer has decided to frame a particular scene, and requires events to unfold in a certain way. Because these scenes are beloved, they may be difficult for the writer to identify during a review; there are a few simple questions that can help identify them. Is this the only possible outcome? Is there a simpler outcome? Is there an outcome that will better suit the characters? Is there an outcome that will better suit the story? If the answer to any of these is “yes”, then the writer needs to rethink and rework the scene in question.

More often, the sniff test fails in the instigation of a scene rather than its execution. In this case, the writer needs to examine the initial incident and ask: Is it possible? Is it probable? Is it plausible? Is it likely? If the answer to any of these is “no”, the scene has a serious problem.

The reader is going to be far more critical of a story than the writer, almost inevitably. The writer’s job is to prevent that critical eye from tossing away the story in frustration at the lack of believability by providing the reader with characters and scenes they can understand and that logically follow each other. Reading already requires suspension of disbelief, the reader who smells something funny in the plot will not have a good experience.

Red Herrings

Red herring

Welcome to the first weekly installment of The Writer’s Block blog. Every weekly entry will feature tips, encouragement, advice, best practices, and red flags for new, aspiring, and established writers. Wait … why target established writers? Don’t they already know what they’re doing? Well sure, but every one of those guys will tell you that every well of creativity needs a little rainfall to top it off, in this case, I assume they’re looking for affirmation and encouragement. And maybe, if I’m lucky, someone more experienced than I will take the time to agree or disagree with what I have to say. Enough marketing talk, on to the good stuff!

Nanowrimo is behind us again, and the writer now has a novel in need of editing. This is the time for him to look critically at all aspects of his manuscripts, decide what works, and excise what doesn’t. One important part of the editing process is tracking down and removing those portions of the manuscript that don’t pay off for the reader, we’ll call them “red herrings”. This process helps improve form, and is an important component of circular storytelling.

In chasing red herrings, we’re really only concerned about three types. The first type of red herring is the conventional misleading clue that causes a detective to come to an incorrect conclusion. We are applying the same principle to the reader in the following way: the first red herring is a portion of the manuscript that causes the reader to expect a certain payoff, but substitutes a different payoff. This is the “bait and switch” approach common in mystery and horror stories, and there is nothing wrong with it at all. The writer must only make certain that the reader, in receiving a payoff other than then one he expected, still feels validated for having spent time chasing the hook. A reader who feels cheated, who feels the writer isn’t playing fair, is a reader lost.

The second red herring involves a hook intentionally or inadvertantly set by the writer that fails to pay off for the reader. In it’s simplest form it involves the principle behind Chekhov’s gun – a gun present in the first act must be fired by the third. When tieing up Loose Threads, the writer seeks to find all of his red herrings and land them safely in the net. Now that the novel is “finished”, any red herrings the writer finds still on his hook need to be cast back into the ocean. By removing those plot and character hooks that fail to pay off for the reader entirely, the writer tightens up his story construction, and reduces the opportunity to disappoint the reader.

Excising these extraneous portions of the manuscript is easier and less painful than it sounds. Chances are, if a hook fails to produce a payoff, it wasn’t very important to the story to begin with. These types of red herrings are often found in concert with other hooks that do lead to a payoff, allowing the writer to eliminate redundancy in the manuscript while tightening the plot. Most often, hooks are left dangling simply because the writer has forgotten about them; removing the initial mention of the hook from the story will often neither impact the plot at all nor change the characterization.

Identifying a flopping red herring may be a little more complicated. The easiest solution is to give the manuscript a quick read and periodically ask, “Whatever happened to…” If no answer to the question is apparent, throw that herring back! Looking a little deeper, whenever two plot or character hooks are dropped at once there is a good chance that one of them may be a duplicate. If the payoff for any given hook happens at the same time in the same way, and is in fact the same as, the payoff for another hook, the writer has an opportunity to tighten the manuscript by removing the duplicate reference. With each hook that surfaces, the writer has a new opportunity to decide if it pays off, pays off successfully, or simply gets in the way. Each herring must be kept, cured, or thrown back as needed.

Which leads us to the final red herring – a time-honored salty snack that every writer needs to keep handy by his workplace. No, don’t try to eat them (unless you’re from Maine or just really, really British), just keep them there as a reminder that this is the kind of food you’ll have to eat if you cannot master your writing. It’s good motivation!

Finish Line Fever

Nanowrimo is over. You’ve won, or maybe you’ve almost won. There are no losers here. Everyone gets a trophy. Or you know, the idea of a trophy. You have a novel, that’s trophy enough.

But wait, there’s more.

After the writing comes two or three rounds of editing, spaced around more writing. You have to make sure all of your scenes work, make sure all of your characters are consistent. You have to cross all of your t’s and dot your lower case j’s.

After the editing comes the proofing, checking your story for style and grammar. Reading into, around, between, and through the lines to make sure you’re actually saying what you think you meant to write.

After the proofing …. you do another round of editing and writing.

At some point in time the manuscript is finished and suitable for the public.

Now you’ve got to market the book.

There’s still a lot of work yet to be done, but for now you’ve got a 50,000 word manuscript on your hands. Not everyone can say that.

Good job!

The journey’s not over. There’s work yet to be done, but it won’t be going anywhere. Take the weekend off and refresh your memories of those other people who live in the house with you. Your story will be there when you come back. We go back to work on Monday, take the weekend off.

Tell ‘em I said you could.

Working the Payoff

Every story eventually comes to a conclusion, it’s the writer’s job to make sure that conclusion satisfies both the needs of the story and the desires of the reader. The story needs a conclusion that ties up all of the loose plot threads and ensures that every character has been through a complete arc. These technical details are important to the reader, but only at the basic level. The reader knows they are important to the story, but he is much less interested in the fact that the conclusion to every plot point and character arc exists than in how that point is concluded. The reader doesn’t just want a conclusion to the story; the reader wants a satisfying payoff.

What does a satisfying payoff look like? In its simplest format, the punishment must fit the crime. In primetime crime drama, the portion of the show that gives the procedural its weight comes from discovering information about the victim. The real crime in the story, as far as the reader is concerned, isn’t the actual law breaking – the details of which most readers have limited experience if any all. For the reader, the real crime is the frustration of the victim and those who care about the victim. These characters had hopes and dreams which the criminal stole from them in one way or another. While the resolution of the story may see the criminal brought to justice and the resources of the victim restored (if possible), the real payoff comes from making the criminal suffer in the same way as the victim.

Once again, the details of the suffering are not as important as the emotional effect of the suffering on the character. The physical action of the crime, even violent, intimate crime like murder and rape, is entirely secondary to the fact that the victim was rendered powerless, made to be subject to another’s incompassionate whim, and had their hopes and dreams destroyed. While it may be appropriate for the murderer to be killed, the death of the criminal means less than the removal of his power, the thwarting of his desires, and subjecting him to the power of the law.

More personal and less violent stories usually have less personal and more destructive antagonists. In a romantic drama, the heroine is often thwarted in her desire for a fulfilling life by the impersonal and utterly implacable hand of fate. There is no embodiment for the writer to punish. The heroine must simply overcome and endure. Even when the heroine’s will is thwarted by the (obviously unworthy) designs of a rival for the object of her affections, the reader is seldom interested in shooting the rival in the face as a means of reuniting the star-crossed lovers. The reader’s payoff doesn’t even always come from the heroine winning the love of her beau; romance stories aren’t actually about romance, they’re about fulfillment.

At the end of the romance story, the heroine has to do more than simply land her lover. The heroine must be happy with how things have turned out. Usually, this story ends with a baby and a “happily ever after”, but this is only one way to create fulfillment. One of the reasons that Romeo & Juliet works even though everyone dies (uh, spoiler alert for, you know, a 500 year-old play….) is not because the two lovers sacrifice their lives for the sake of love. The suicide pact is incidental to the play. The play works because in the wake of the lovers’ deaths, the two families put aside their differences to make peace. This denouement is the payoff for everything that Romeo and Juliet gave up in order to be together. It gives meaning and weight to their deaths. The love the two young people bore for each other finds fulfillment in the peace between the Montagues and Capulets.

At the end of the story, the reader doesn’t just want to know how things ended. The reader wants to be rewarded for investing his time in reading the story. The reader wants to know that the story meant something, that the moral right has been observed, and that the characters have had a fulfilling life. This is the payoff, and the writer needs to work towards this goal at every point in the story.