Paul Welch

On Fantasy, Writing & the Journey to Publication

Tag Archives: setting

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.

Public vs. Private – Adding Layers To Your Scenes

Sometimes, when we’re writing a scene, we run into difficulties. Something just isn’t working. It might be a tone thing, or an atmosphere thing, but it’s often difficult to pin point.

As a professional actor, when I approach script analysis,  I always examine the nature of “public vs. private.” People – and characters – behave differently depending on circumstances and setting. What costs us nothing in a private setting suddenly costs us everything in a public setting. And by looking at whether a scene is public or private, there are so many conclusions we can draw – conclusions that increase the stakes and amp up the drama of any given scene.

If we look at our own lives, we also see that this is true. At home – with our family – we have a different persona than we do when we’re out in public, or when we’re at work, at church, or with our grandparents, etc.

From a voice, speech, and text point of view (which I teach to theatre students at a college), we call this “code shifting.” The type of language we use – the tone of voice, the pitch, cadence, and vocabulary – changes depending on the given circumstance and the people we’re choosing to engage. It’s an extremely important tool for cracking a scene, and I believe it can be a useful tool for writers, too.

As an example: When we’re talking with our loved ones, we behave differently than if we were, say, in an interview, or purchasing a car or home. We adopt different a persona depending on our circumstances and the nature of the relationship with the people we’re currently engaging – and with who might be watching.

And if we think about our comfort zones vs. moments of discomfort (i.e. traveling to a foreign country), we are definitely aware of the difference in our behavior.  As an aspect of the human condition, it’s an incredible opportunity for adding conflict to our scenes, and I encourage you to examine it in your own work.

I think it’s important for us, as writers, to consider the impact of the private vs. the public.

When we encounter a scene where things aren’t working, one of the tools we can draw upon is to consider the relationship dynamic between the characters. Is this a private moment, behind closed doors? Or are we in a public setting, where the status and relationship of the characters come into play? What’s at stake in the scene, and do the stakes change whether the scene happens privately or publically?

Perhaps we’ve planned some important moments of character development or revelation, yet they don’t seem as effective as we imagine them in our minds. So what if the scene becomes public, rather than private?

The way the characters choose to interact with one another shifts, and we receive an added level of conflict: the personal vs. public persona. What happens when it’s pushed to the limits? What happens if  the limitations of personal code break down, and a character unleashes everything they’re feeling – every little complaint, concern, and issue they might be having?

The impact definitely changes.

Consider how your scenes might change depending on whether it’s a two-hander scene in a private study, or a scene that happens at a party, or in a crowded marketplace.

What was once a somewhat decent outburst of emotion becomes a horrific train wreck, with very public ramification and personal implication possible.

And who doesn’t enjoy watching a train wreck?

Have you ever encountered a scene where you’ve examined the nature of private vs. public? How did it change your scene? Are there scenes in your work where this technique might serve you? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.