Paul Welch

On Fantasy, Writing & the Journey to Publication

Tag Archives: roleplay

An Injection of Conflict

I currently live in Calgary, Alberta (that’s in Canada, for those who aren’t in the know), and we’re knee-deep in provincial elections right now. There are numerous political parties vying for the win, each with their own mandate as to how they wish to represent Albertans, and how they wish to shape our province and move forward.

There have been a lot of contentious debates surrounding key issues of abortion, gay marriage, equality, the rights of women, health care, arts and culture, and economic survival. Some of these issues hit pretty close to home for a number of people – and (particularly if you’re involved in social media websites and follow the news) the debate is getting pretty heated.

I try to stay abreast of current events, and I have been paying attention to what’s going on south of the border. It looks like the same key issues are surfacing in the States.

One thing that stands out is the level of conflict. There have been debates about personal beliefs vs. public beliefs, personal (religious) beliefs vs. political beliefs. It is challenging to watch or participate without your heart rate rising and getting all worked up. And that’s because it’s personal, no matter what side of the fence you fall on.

A group feels attacked and discriminated against – targeted, even – and they feel that their rights, welfare, and safety could very well be compromised if the election results show up as predicted. Other groups (even those in the majority) feel that any criticism of the political platform set forth, or the personal/public/religious beliefs of the politicians involved, is also an attack and a discrimination.

It’s a big ole hot mess, and it’s difficult to reconcile.

The flip side of it is that it is very interesting (and some would argue scary.) So many people are engaged, and a lot of apathetic citizens are being moved to stand up and voice an opinion, take a stance, and get out and vote. Many are encouraging their friends and colleagues to vote in an effort to ensure a future for a province in which they’d like to live and thrive. It will be interesting to see the outcome – both of the provincial elections here in Alberta, and the federal elections south of the border in the USA.

I bring this up because it is on my mind a lot these days, and it reminds me of when I used to administer/run my online text-based roleplaying game, The Towers of Jadri (which, if you’ll recall, is the world in which my stories are set.)

The biggest challenge I faced in trying to create a dynamic, interesting game for my players to play had to do with conflict. People gravitated towards happy, peaceful times. Others tried to play conflict, but often failed – falling into stereotypes, archetypes, and unmotivated cruelty.

We would try to find interesting plot lines, clear-cut aggressors, threats from dangerous places, invasions, explosions, and even war. We’d do our best to create realistic motivations for the key players involved, and we tried to ensure the conflict suited the current climate of world politics, the players’ roleplay, and organizational interests, all the while keeping the big picture story in mind.

The problem? The conflict was usually resolved immediately.

People had fun during the times of conflict, because there was something to do. They could band together, unite, create strategies, and take steps towards a common goal. It was active, exciting, and uniting.

But when the conflict was resolved, things would inevitably slow down and people would get bored – and we’d struggled to find new ways of injecting conflict back into the mix.

I give all this preamble as a way to focus in on your stories.

Examine the story from a point of view of the conflict. Does each scene have conflict? Is the conflict strong? Is it external, or internal? How do the characters respond? What steps do they take? Is it something that can (or should) be resolved quickly? How does it fit into the bigger picture?

Conflict makes things interesting. It is something to which we can relate and respond. If your story is low on conflict, it might be worth revisiting to see if there are ways to inject a little more conflict into the mix. Give something for people to fight for, or fight against. Something to fear, and something to root for. Your story will likely be stronger as a result.

Have you ever read books that were painfully low on conflict? Did they manage to keep your interest in another way? If so, how did they succeed? What are some examples of your favorite books where the conflict is impeccably handled? Please comment below, as I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Geeking Out: From Gamer to Writer

I have mentioned before that I’m a bit of a geek.

Growing up, I spent countless hours playing, administrating, and running MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons). These were the text-based roleplaying games where I would whittle away my hours, interacting with people around the world by playing at being a Druid, a secret magic user, a nefarious rogue, a troubled artist, a religious Warband leader, and a powerful manipulator of the elements who had a huge distrust of authority. I spent countless hours developing skills that have proven exceptionally useful in my writing. I’d like to share some of that experience and those skills with you here today, and put forth my argument that certain types of gaming can be a writer’s greatest gift.

Character Planning. When we begin a roleplaying game, we have to think about the history of our character. Or rather, we do if we hope to create a solid character that will have longevity in the world. This involves figuring out who our parents might be, what are our religious beliefs, which gods or goddess we might like and dislike, what is our skill set, what events in our youth might have shaped our attitude and outlook in life, and what our aspirations are – our super-objectives that drive us through the world.

Druid

How would you describe her in words?

How do we feel about other nationalities/races/religions? What style of clothing do we choose to wear? What is our economic status, and how will we interact or move through the world?

Asking these questions help create the dynamic, interesting characters people will want to interact with and include in their roleplaying world.

And the same questions apply to planning our protagonists and antagonists and indeed our secondary and tertiary characters. The more fleshed-out a character appears to be, the more seamlessly they fit into the world. It creates a subtle impact, and readers pick up on it. The characters will have attitudes, personality, prejudices, and allegiances. This will affect how they move through and interact with the world. It creates for a more immersive storytelling experience.

Writing and Reading Descriptions. When I administered and ran MUDs, my duties included building the descriptions of rooms, objects, and monsters. As a player, my duties included describing my character for others to see and read the world around me. I had to examine how others described themselves, what the rooms and areas we played in looked like, and whether there might useful clues we might devise from the world around us.

On some MUDs, the descriptions are pretty limited. They are stunted, do nothing to further our understanding of the world, and are often times laughable. The same can be said about a good deal of gamers out there. But when you come across the players who have good descriptions and the MUDs where a true atmosphere has been evoked in the way everything has been described… Well, it is thrilling.

Now, I don’t mean to brag, but I can write some killer descriptions. Pages of them, if need be. Unfortunately, this usually causes problems, and I end up spending time paring the descriptions down in order to ensure that they drive the atmosphere forward, rather than bog the reader down and create obstacles to the enjoyment of the story.

Personally, I like to rely on descriptions that involve a sensory experience. Our senses of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell all help immerse the reader into the world. Often times, though, less is more – and this becomes crucial with writing strong stories.

Atmosphere can take center stage

Atmosphere can take center stage

There are moments where the atmosphere or locale needs to take center stage, where an anticipated character gets the opportunity to wow the reader with their carefully put-together attire. We just need be careful that it doesn’t add obstacles to the enjoyment of the story.

World Building. When I began designing my MUD, The Towers of Jadri, I started from scratch. I had a common look-and-feel in mind, as I wanted to create a unified world for my players to immerse themselves in.

I built dozens of areas – likely 80% or more of the playable zones on the MUD – for the characters to explore and live in. I spent countless of hours writing help files for players to be able to read to further understand the culture, history, and abilities. I’d even pay players in the form of special in-game points to go through all the game’s commands in search of missing help files, or scanning the current help files for things of interest which could be elaborated upon to assist in the understanding of the world.

Ultimately, I don’t know whether the players appreciated the several hundred help files that the MUD had. However, when I stop by other MUDs, I am often dumbfounded by how non-user friendly they seem to be – simply because I am unable to get the answers to the questions I have in order to successfully develop the depth of my character.

Now, the hours I spent fleshing out the world served another useful purpose, as I still have those areas and help files. Since the Towers of Jadri was a MUD set in my world, everything I built – from rooms and objects to monsters and help files – furthered my own understanding of the world, the history, the nations, races, special and magical abilities, etc. This was serious world-building, and as a result I believe that when my stories are read, there is a sense of full immersion into the richness of the world. My beta readers seem to agree.

Okay, it sounds like I’m tooting my own horn a little bit, and I apologize. I’m proud of the world I created, and I often find myself a little blown away by the fact that, 15 years later, the game I created has turned into an honest-to-goodness book. It’s allowed for me to create a fully-realized world where the metaphysics and history make sense, where the way people interact with each other is plausible, and where the stories have become quite easy for me to share.

How has your involvement in gaming helped develop your craft and the stories you tell? Have you had any special experiences that have led to your worlds being fully immersive and highly developed? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below – it’s pretty nifty hearing how other people came to develop their worlds.

Becoming a Master – 10,000 Hours to Master Your Craft

Malcolm Gladwell writes some fantastic books. My favorites include Blink, Outliers, and The Tipping Point.

In Outliers, Gladwell introduces a concept:

It takes 10,000 hours to become a master at something.

10,000 hours of investment in your drawing skills will lead to a level of mastery. 10,000 hours of the study of the history of Venice will likely make you an honest-to-goodness expert in the field. This makes sense to me, even though life can’t always follow the rules of a formula. But it’s a good general guideline.

So let’s do the math:

  • 10,000 hours / 365 days (1 year) = 27.5 hours/day (Impossible!)
  • 10,000 hours / 1095 days (3 years) = 9.1 hours/day (Possible, but exhausting)
  • 10,000 hours / 2190 days (6 years) = 4.6 hours / day (More likely)

Interesting to think about, isn’t it?

How many hours a day do you spend honing your craft?

To be a good writer involves an investment of time. This is where formal education does come in hand. It forces us to invest the time required to improve our skills. Additionally, we get feedback, critique, and hopefully some encouragement along the way. We gain a formal understanding, and pick up numerous tips and tricks. We’re more likely to develop faster than we would on our own.

But not all of us have pursued this sort of formal training.

I didn’t. I have 7 years of university under my belt, but it was divided between a 4-year BA degree in Psychology and Philosophy and a 3-year BFA degree in Acting. Sure, I did a lot of writing in both programs, but nowhere near the 10,000 hours needed to become a master.

However, there’s another component aside from education: practical experience. We can’t discount that. Any work – be it reading, writing, critiquing, or editing – definitely counts.

Lately, I’ve been reading tons of articles, books, and blogs about the craft of writing. I’ve learned a great deal and it’s really changed the way I approach my craft. I know there’s still so much for me to learn, and I am actively pursuing my own practical experience and training. Some days I’m discouraged, feeling like I’m so far behind. But then, when I look at what I’ve accomplished over the past 15 years, I realize I’m exactly on target.

As mentioned in my last post, I started playing online text-based roleplaying games when I was 13. In the gaming world, they’re called Multi-User Dungeons, or MUDs. They had no graphics, no fancy special effects or sounds. They relied wholly on imagination, and that made them both powerful and engaging.

I am afraid to calculate how many hours I logged on MUDs over the course of the 10 years I spent playing, administering, and running them.

I started out as a player and eventually became a staff member. I helped police the game, assisted with problems, resolve bugs, and even add content. I would also help encourage role-play by planning quests and special events for some or all of the players to participate in, and these events involved storytelling in its purest form.

Now, I know for a fact I logged well over 10,000 hours. It might be close to 30,000 (or more) – but let’s not concern ourselves too much with that. And not all of my hours were spent writing, but a good portion of them were. I cannot deny that my involvement in running and administering MUDs helped develop my craft.

My journey might not be conventional, but it definitely had worth.

How about for yourself? What unconventional methods helped develop your craft? Do you have a unique journey that led you to writing? During a typical day, do you find opportunities to focus and develop your skill? I’d love to hear your stories, so please feel free to share them in the comments below.

A Journey to Storytelling

I have been a writer – a storyteller – since I was 13 years old.

When I was younger, I struggled at school in English. It was never my forte. In fact, in grade 5 I believe my grade in English might have been a D.

I never had much interest in books. In a heated spar with my 15-year old sister, she once lobbed the word “illiterate” at me because I only read Calvin & Hobbes. (Note my surprize when, after obtaining a degree in Psychology and Philosophy and re-reading Calvin & Hobbes, I was blown away by the profundity of Bill Watterson’s work. It likely had a major influence on my post-secondary academic pursuits.)

At my family’s cottage on the 13th summer of my youth, I was introduced to the world of Fantasy by a neighbor. He spoke to me of fantasy books and of these incredible on-line, text-based roleplaying games called MUDs – Multi-User Dungeons. We were playing badminton on the green grass, overlooking the blue waters of the lake, and my world exploded with the possibility of playing an elf, dwarf, orc, or troll, a warrior, mage, thief, or cleric.

It changed everything.

I began playing MUDs that September, logging on to the local FreeNet through our old 2400-baud modem. My parent s were worried, for their only son was beginning to explore the mysterious “cyberspace,” and these MUDs weren’t the typical pastime of 13-year-old boys.

If you’ve never played a MUD before, allow me to give an overview.

MUDs are 100% text-based. There are no graphics, no special effects to seduce and entertain you. Sometimes, you’ll find color (and at the time, this was the most impressive aspect of some MUDs.) You would create a character and decide what race, class, and moral alignment that character might have. You’d pick your skill sets and your preferred weapon, and you’d be thrown into the game full-force. You created a character – a role – that you would play in the adventures and storytelling – the role-play – that you’d encounter.

Rooms had descriptions, with objects you could obtain and equip. There were channels to chat on, areas to travel through, and guilds to join. There were players from around the world, sharing in the game at any given time. People and monsters were strings of texts you could look at, interact with. If you felt bold, and if the MUD allowed it, you could even fight them.

And to me, it was incredible.

I jumped head-first into the realm of MUDs, beginning originally on a mud called MadROM (because the neighbor at my cottage played there.) It was here that I met one special woman whom I am still in correspondence with today. Indeed, she is the sole inspiration behind the character of Ischade in my first book, In the Shadows of the Dawn.

My parents were understandably concerned. Their son was suddenly a full-time online “gamer.” I spent anywhere from 3-14 hours a day playing on MUDs. My parents tried to limit my online time, but when faced with my logic – “Would you rather I sit in front of the TV for 14 hours?” – it was a near-impossible task to persuade me otherwise. I claimed my homework was always complete, and that it wouldn’t get in the way of my schooling. My report card would ultimately be the deciding factor.

Fast forward to midterms and an A+ in English, and I was victorious.

MUDs also launched me into a world of exploration. Philosophy and religion became avid interests of mine. I was introduced to the world of Fantasy, and the “illiterate” 13-year old was suddenly reading Terry Brooks, Robert Jordan, Mercedes Lackey, and Terry Goodkind.

It also introduced me to the world of storytelling and roleplaying. It is here, I believe, that my passion for theatre – for the performing arts – and for writing – the telling of stories – was born.

I am grateful for MUDs and for summers at the cottage.

They have undeniably shaped who I am.

Why did you first begin telling stories? What form did they take, and with whom did you share them? Did your passion for storytelling dictate aspects of your life or career? Share your journey in the comments below – I’d love to hear about it.