Saturday, April 19, 2014

Other Geekdom Pursuits

So, my 40 days of avoiding gaming of all stripes is nearly over.  But I'm too much of a geek to go totally without any form of geekdom.  I'm just not wired that way.  So how does a gamer keep keep his head above water with geeky pursuits while avoiding gaming?

Books


  • Finished the audiobook for Star Wars Annihilation
  • Finished the audiobook for Star Wars Revan
  • Finished the audiobook for Star Wars Honor Among Thieves
  • Finished the audiobook for the novelization for Star Wars Episode III--Revenge of the Sith
  • Finished the audiobook for Furies of Calderon
  • Started reading ebook of Star Wars Choices of One  (not finished)
  • Started reading ebook of Death's Angels  (not finished)
  • Started reading ebook of The Weight of Blood  (not finished)
  • Started reading actual book of Fortress Draconis  (not finished)
  • Continued reading actual book Horus Heresy False Gods  (not finished)
Note:  Not finishing a book has nothing to do with the quality of the book or my enjoyment of said book.  If you gave me 20 new books, by the end of the week I would likely have started all 20 of them, until I finally get fed up with myself and force myself to focus on one instead of going round robin on all of them.

Comic Books

  • Read the series Star Wars Agent of the Empire--Hard Targets
  • Reread Rat Queens up to the current issue
  • Read Age of Ultron, found out that if I went back in time to keep myself from reading it I could cause Image comics characters to shift into this reality, decided against it
  • Read all issues of All New X-Men currently on Marvel Unlimited
  • Read all issues of the current Avengers series on Marvel Unlimited
Movies

Captain America--The Winter Soldier.  If I watched anything else, it didn't stay with me.

Television

  • Caught up with Agents of SHIELD online
  • Watched season six of the Clone Wars on Netflix
  • Watched all five seasons of Fringe on Amazon Prime
  • Watched season one of Defiance on Amazon Prime
  • Watched Wrestlemania  (I've got a whole blog post percolating about storytelling lessons learned from sports entertainment)
So, that was the geekier side of my last 40+ days.  I haven't cracked an RPG book or started up a video game for quite a while.  But I know where all of my books are, and my controller is within easy reach.

Building Communities!

I threw together a couple new communities on Google+ for those inclined to join such things, and while I'm at it, I'll mention the other ongoing public community I've had up for a while.



Warhammer 40000 Roleplaying

I set this community up to discuss the ongoing RPGs that Fantasy Flight produces for the 40K setting.  I noticed several communities scattered around Google+ for individual games, but none of them had a lot going on, so I thought that maybe one community for all of them would be a good thing, especially since I'm fairly certain there is overlap in interest between the lines.



Fantasy Flight Warhammer Card and Board Games

I set this one up to talk about all of the Fantasy Flight Warhammer games, like Relic and Blood Angels and Diskwars and the upcoming 40K LCG.  They are pretty games, and I've had fun with the ones that I've played, so I figured it would be good to have a collected space to oh and ahh over them, or to point out issues with the games for people that haven't had a chance to play them yet.



Fantasy Flight Tabletop Star Wars Games

There is an X-Wing presence on Google+, and a community for the LCG, but like the 40K games, I figured consolidating the two might make for a slightly more lively community when it comes to discussion and news, so I made a consolidated community.

So, if you are so inclined, feel free to join one, two, or three of these communities.  Thanks for your time, and we now return you to your regularly scheduled gaming blog . . .


When is a Good Story not a Good Shared World Story?

There are stories that are good stories.  There are stories that are good stories on their own that are not good shared world stories.  There are even stories that are probably worth reading that are good shared world stories that are fairly bad stories standing on their own.  The sliders on this kind of fiction can be all over the place.

What Was a Good Story that Was a Bad Shared World Story?

One series immediately comes to mine when thinking of a good story that was a bad shared world story.  Its' been years since I read them, but the Prism Pentad series of Dark Sun novels immediately leap to mind.



From a novel reader's point of view, this was a broad sweeping epic.  The world referenced all sorts of classic fantasy, but was more akin to post apocalyptic stories than any of those classic fantasy stories that it referenced.  It has massive secrets and plot twists.  Epic things happened to the characters and the world, and nothing was safe.  Anyone could die, anyone could be changed forever.

And almost all of those things are what made the books a terrible start for a shared world franchise.  The Dark Sun setting had just been established.  We knew the rulers, the cities, the recent history, what was carried over from classic fantasy and what was turned on its head.  It was a wide open playground where people could deal with political maneuvering lost lore or ancient magic, and find all kinds of secrets around every corner.

But the book revealed a lot of those secrets.  We knew from the setting what history A looked like (vaguely) and what current history C looked like, but we didn't know B (the path between them).   The Prism Pentad had a lot of B in it.  Which would be fine if the author would have been the only one directing the setting, but he wasn't.

We learned who the Dragon was, who the Sorcerer Kings were, saw the social order overturned in multiple established cities, learned some of how we got from classic fantasy to post apocalyptic fantasy, delved into the nature of magic, and found out who the mysterious big (sort of) bad guys were.  All secrets that could have been hinted at for years by other authors without confirming anything.

But strictly as a reader of the series?  I loved it.

What Was a Good Shared World Story that Was a Bad Story on its Own?

I had to think about this one a bit.  I enjoyed the book, and I don't fault the author with anything in the structure of the book or its resolution, but I would have to say the Star Wars novel Reven fails as a stand alone novel if you weren't already looking for answers or connective tissue in the shared world of the Star Wars Expanded Universe.



Because so much happened in them, the backstory of the characters from Knights of the Old Republic I and II  (the video RPGs) is only briefly touched on, so if you don't already have a frame of reference for the characters, you can easily feel like you were missing something.  The end of the book isn't really a resolution.  We see people end up in certain places after they try to force a resolution, but it really feels like the book should lead into another chapter or a whole other book, but instead, it just ends with an overview of where we leave everyone.

People that are fans of the RPGs knew that the book was going to fill in the gaps from the end of the KOTOR series and the storylines that are explored in the Old Republic MMO, but someone not coming from those games is going to read a story where they are introduced to someone, told, but not really shown, how important and powerful a lot of characters are, and then see them struggle for a while before they end up in limbo at the end.

The book is entertaining, if you know it's not going to tell a full story, but it was clearly created as a bridge between stories being told in another medium, and this could be very jarring if you don't go into the novel with that idea firmly in mind.

Plentiful Potential Pitfalls

I think it's really important to know what you want to do with your shared world when you set out to tell stories there.  Are you promoting another product beyond the novels, comics, or storytellying medium where you are publishing your narrative, such as a roleplaying game?  Are those coequal endeavors?  Is one clearly part of the marketing of another?

I've seen a lot of shared worlds advance their timelines, and I'm not sure why.  While I'm sure you can have a shared world where there is a meta-plot that you want to advance, and you are funneling your creators into that meta-plot, that's a very specific kind of shared world experience, and I think one that is outside of the usual experience that people are looking for.  It makes sense for Star Wars, for example, because the shared world is based on an ongoing, forward moving narrative itself.  It makes less sense for lines that support RPG settings, because while you may be pushing consumers to buy new, forward moving projects, you are also making some of your old products less attractive, and potentially changing elements in the setting that actually attracted fans.

Media Properties that Move Forward

Continuing my recent trend of imagining myself in charge of important things I'll never get near, if I were going to be in charge of a media property that is planning to move forward, I think I would be much more careful about the pacing of that property.

There have been several properties, from the Forgotten Realms to Star Wars, that told stories where authors are writing installments of an ongoing narrative even as other authors are finishing earlier parts of the narrative.  Often characters don't feel the same between books, plot threads get dropped, and the story feels uneven.

If at all possible, I'd make sure that I really knew that I needed to maintain that pace before I forced that many authors to read each other's minds.  In a 9 book arc for example, why not have the same author do a trilogy, and plan for a specific thematic shift between them, thus minimizing the potential pitfalls of shifting the voice of the characters at a crucial point.

Properties that Sell a Setting




Again, if I'm in charge?  Resist the urge to move forward.  If your property is the setting, and not a group of heroes or a specific narrative, don't move past the era that you started in unless you have to do so, and then don't race ahead too fast.

Try to tell stories that are a day in the life of the people in the setting.  If you feature adventurers, don't have them save the world, have them save Important Guy #14, or stop a plot that could get worse.  While this would be important advice for a property based on an RPG setting, it's still relevant to a more traditional shared world, because if one author's character saves the world, the next author might be very tempted to at least keep up the same pace and have his characters save the world, and eventually you have a world in constant peril, which suddenly feels commonplace instead of noteworthy.

If you are promoting an RPG line, the above advice is even more important.  Your adventurers should never seem like THE heroes of the setting, just SOME heroes of the setting.  If you have a D&D style setting, they should be competent, mid level types that get the job done, not high level movers and shakers.  They can have interesting adventures, but not at the expense of revealing secrets or toppling the big bads that you should be saving for other people that will be using you setting.


Friday, April 18, 2014

How Would You Do It--What Would Happen if Lucasfilm Made the Mistake of Putting Me In Charge of the Sequel Trilogy

I posited this on Star Wars Beyond the Film's Facebook page, but I wanted to flesh out exactly what kind of damage I would do if by some miracle I had been put in charge of the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy.



First off, I would set it 1000 years after Return of the Jedi.  Why would I do that?

1.  Star Wars draws inspiration from epic fantasy and long term generational stories like Dune.  It's not that odd to jump 1000 years ahead in a story like this.

2.  Regardless of whether you care to keep the expanded universe intact or not, 1000 years makes this discussion less of a relevant point.  If you never got into the EU or if you followed everything that came out, your characters lived long enough and enough time has passed for their victories to have meaning.

3.  I can't help but feel like the Vader-Luke-Leia story, in broad strokes, did really end with ROTJ.  I'm not saying I didn't enjoy EU stories that still featured Luke and Leia, but for your large, big screen, new Star Wars trilogy, the best way to avoid retread is to just move on completely.

I know there might be some that would say you could still get millage from the Luke-Leia Skywalker arc if you had one of them turn and created a new redemption arc, but honestly, I have to admit I'm not much of a fan of Dark Empire.  It really felt to me that if you have Luke, the very next generation of Skywalkers, fall to the Dark Side, you have a really bad loop of Skywalkers being the best and then falling as soon as they hit the top of their game.



Either way, we if you liked Dark Empire, it could still have happened under this set up.

So you know I would shoot the franchise into the future--what would I do next?  Well, the first movie played with a lot of themes that repeat themselves across real world history.  Taking a cue from Rome, we've seen the "Republic becomes an Empire" on screen.  What haven't we seen?  "Rome is torn apart by outside invaders."



200 years ago (from our 1000 year leap forward) a Mandalorian horde not seen since the ancient days of the Old Republic formed.  The Republic had about 700 years of peace and prosperity where it grew complacent and corrupt once again, but this time, there was no Sith Lord to manipulate the fall.  The Mandalorians managed to tear apart the New Republic/Galactic Alliance, but the Jedi managed to kill the Mandalore, the horde fell apart, but with the galaxy still fractured.

Nobody brought anything back together.  For a century sectors have warred against sectors, and a Dark Age has fallen across the galaxy.  Hutts sell weapons to all sides and grow fatter.  The shattered Mandalorian Clans sell themselves as mercenaries to various sectors for a price, but cannot regain their lost glory.



So what's going on with the Jedi?  Well, they weren't wiped out this time, but they were scattered.  There is no large central group of Jedi, and those that come in contact with one another are at odds over various changes made to how they teach and train their members.  Some hold to the old ways, and train from infancy, never allowing their members to form attachments.  Others recruit teenagers and form families.  All of them believe the others to practice doctrines that, while not of the Dark Side itself, might be dangerous enough to cause them to fall, and they fail to pull themselves back together.

So who are the big bad guys?



It could be any Dark Side sect that isn't the Sith, but my preference would be the Sorcerers of Rhand.  Why not Sith?  Because at this point, even if we didn't realize it back in 1977, the Sith have been the ultimate bad guys for six Star Wars movies.  They had their ultimate victory when Palpatine was made Emperor, and their ultimate defeat with his death.  Again, if you were an EU fan or a movies only fan, this still bookends well.

So why the Sorcerers of Rhand?  They believe in Entropy.  They don't want to galaxy to be united under their rule.  They want it to die and fall to pieces.  They have a vested interest in the galaxy falling apart and withering.  Why are they the villains now?



After a century of galactic dark ages and sectors warring with other sectors, warlords, monarchs, crime lords, and sector rulers are being called to Coruscant by the Tradionalist Sect of the Jedi.  The Traditionalists want to begin to put the galaxy back together, but they are certain that they are the ones that should be anointing the new galactic government.  This also brings some of the leading Jedi sects to Coruscant for the meeting as well.

The Sorcerers of Rhand have their own powerful warlord that they are secretly propping up for galactic rule.  The warlord himself is certain that the sorcerers just want to be the power behind the throne when he takes over the galaxy, but in truth, the Sorcerers of Rhand want to use him as a hammer to smash the strongest alliances that have the greatest chance to bring the galaxy together, and then discard him.

The Sorcerers also want to kill the most level headed and forward thinking of all of the Jedi sects.  After all, the Light Side promotes life and renewal.  The Sorcerers of Rhand want the galaxy to finally fall into total darkness and annihilation.  That said, they want their "candidate" to look like the hero, so they hire a mercenary group of Mandalorians to attack the conference.  Their warlord drives off the bad guys (with help from some of the major characters we would be introducing), but one Jedi  (our protagonist) finds out the Sorcerers are behind the whole thing.  They manage to frame him for the assassination of a Traditionalist Jedi, and while the talks and all of the major galactic players are safe, our hero is on the run trying to prove the Sorcerers of Rhand are the real threat.



Our hero would be a Jedi that isn't from a major Jedi sect, but rather from a "Master to Apprentice" minor tradition in one of the smaller sectors.  He doesn't really have much of a dog in this fight, because his masters have always just emphasized the baseline Jedi ethics we all knew from the first movies.  And you you really need the cameo, our protagonist can be carrying a holocron created by Luke, so that we get to see Luke as the holocron's gatekeeper.  We could throw in a Mandalorian merc that found out that they were being used as dupes, and a smuggler helping out the Jedi and the Mandalorian for the cash.

So that's my pitch.  I'd have to cogitate a bit more to flesh out Episode VIII and IX, but I think it's a solid, workable start.  Visually, the Sorcerer's patsy would be the cleanest, most visually uniform of all of the factions, since he's got the resources from the Sorcerers on his side, so he's got the most "Stormtrooper-eque" troops on his side.  I'd co-opt the darksabers introduced in the Clone Wars animated series as the weapons of the Sorcerers of Rhand so that we would still have some lightersaber on lightsaber goodness, but we keep the color coded evil convention from the previous movies.



I'd have the Corellian Sector as one of the most powerful factions, and one that doesn't want to run the galaxy themselves.  They are almost the "light side" version of the Hutts, as they prosper from selling ships and the like to multiple sectors, but with less of an emphasis on keeping everyone fighting one another.  The Corellian Sector representative really just wants to make sure the new Republic or whatever has a strong foundation, without directly controlling it.  This ties into the EU, but also shifts the known political movers and shakers from Naboo and Alderaan  (obviously) to a new player, but one that has been reference both in the EU and the movies.

Thoughts, jeers  (okay, not really), and ideas are more than welcome.  It's all just really fleshing out my conjecture for fun, because of all of the few bits and pieces we know about the actual movies, we know it's nowhere near what I just pitched.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Shared World that Wasn't, Until it Was, Until it Wasn't (The Star Wars Expanded Universe)

As I've been thinking about shared world fiction, some things became clear to me about Star Wars and it's Expanded Universe, and why people have such varying degrees of attachment to it and it's importance to the Star Wars brand overall.



Star Wars essentially started out as a licensed property that was clearly being directed by one creator, George Lucas.  While there was an Expanded Universe right from the start  (Splinter of the Mind's Eye, the Han Solo Trilogy, the Marvel comics, etc.), whenever information from those books was overwritten, it didn't seem to cause the same level of consternation that something similar would cause now.

Yes, I realize we didn't have the internet back then, bear with me.



I think part of the issue is that we viewed things that Lucas wasn't directly involved with back then the same way we might view a movie tie in video game today.  If Rhino shows up in a video game for the Amazing Spider-Man movie, and he's completely different when he shows up in the movies than he was in the video game, it's not a big shock.  We know the people working on the movies have their own plans, and the video game is just a video game, and it's fun for a while, but it's not the next movie, and we all know it.

But something different happened with Star Wars.  So many people loved the story.  The universe was similar to Tolkien's, in that we knew there was more to the setting than what was directly pertinent to the stories at hand.  But after Return of the Jedi came out, George Lucas essentially walked away from the series.

George has given tons of contradictory interviews on how many movies he intended to make and when, and Googling anything about George and what he said about Star Wars yields a massive wall of potentially contradictory information, much like George's scripts  (sorry, couldn't help it).  So, while I'm more than willing to entertain any issues that may come up with how I characterize things, I'm going to go from memory here, and I don't think I'm wrong.  Essentially, George had said, after Return of the Jedi, that he was done with Star Wars.



What that means is that when he gave West End Games permission to play with his toys, and then Bantam Books and Dark Horse Comics, and told them they all had to play nice with one another it essentially turned Star Wars from the licensed vision of one man to a shared universe that was being coordinated by Lucas Licensing.  

The thing that might be difficult for people that only watch the movies to fully grasp about people that got invested in the novels and comics and roleplaying games is that Lucas, at one point in time, was pretty clear about never doing another Star Wars movie.  So if you were the type of person that loved Star Wars and were likely to follow roleplaying games, novels, and/or comics, you essentially had the "go signal" to know that this was Star Wars from this point on.  All of these efforts were suppose to be set in the same Star Wars universe, and nothing else was coming out from Lucas.  This was the sum total of all Star Wars from this point on, and there wasn't much ambiguity from George Lucas.



George did reserve the Clone Wars era and the time leading up to Episode IV as a "no man's land" where nobody could tell stories, but despite this restriction, George never said he was going to detail that information.  It could very well be his eccentric sentimentality that reserved that era.  Since he, at one time, had said he was going to do three  (or was it six) other movies, he probably just didn't want to see anyone else touch that era and ruin the image he had in his mind.  Cool.  We got Tales of the Jedi and the New Republic era, and its all cool.



My main point with this post was just to show how Star Wars went from not being a shared world setting to essentially being a shared world setting, and then got reclaimed as "not" a shared world setting.  But there is one more point I can't help but make.  When George did tell everyone "hands off" about the Clone Wars and the Dark Times  (as they would be known eventually), it seemed pretty clear that he didn't want anyone to contradict what he had in mind for these eras.  This also implied that nothing he had in mind would have snarled the stories in eras that were given the big green light, i.e. the Knights of the Old Republic era or the New Republic era.  



George never claimed to read everything that was published, but it's clear that he knew Luke was married, and that there was a comic book series detailing a Sith order that had thousands and thousands of members.  Why bother putting anything off limits if you are still going to allow authors to tread on territory that you were planning on walking yourself?  It's a mystery, but it's clear that despite George's very clear indication that he was done with Star Wars after Return of the Jedi, he never fully understood the scope of the shared universe he tacitly endorsed with both his permission and restrictions.