Writing

#200WordRPG: DOGMA

#200WordRPG is one of my favourite yearly traditions, despite how young it still is. This is my second year entering - last year's entry can be found here. If you're not sure what #200WordRPG is, well, it's a challenge to write an entire tabletop roleplaying game in 200 words or less, with no graphics or special formatting. It's all about the words (all 200 or less of them).
This year, I present to you DOGMA!

You and at least two others (there is no maximum) are an entire religion, throughout its timeline - from inception, to corruption and subversion.

Your religion is growing. It will do great things... Before it is twisted, and made rotten. We play to see it fester.

The first player describes a moment of SPIRITUALITY: a fact about the religion at its founding.
//Thou shall not kill.

The second describes a FABLE that explains it: written long after, it obscures the spirituality from morality into rote learning.
//St. Cain didn't kill the sinner, but cut off their hands, feet and tongue so they could never sin again.

The third describes a MISINTERPRETATION: long after the fable is written, how is it subverted and corrupted for personal gain?
//King Auger cut out the tongues of all non-believers, stating they were now, or would become, sinners. He declared their exsanguination was God taking their deaths into Her own hands.

A player who hasn't described a Spirituality begins again. New Spiritualities must reference or retaliate to a previous Myth or Misinterpretation.
//Suffer not the sinner to live.

The religion stagnates when everyone has misinterpreted something.
//Religion fades when spirituality is forgotten.

Record everything.
I also did pretty it up a little, and uploaded it here (and put it on my portfolio here).

If you play it, let me know!

#200WordRPG: MegaCorp

It's time for #200WordRPG again! This shall be the first year I'm participating. Pretty excited for it, to be honest. If you don't know what it is, you can read all about it here, or see an example from this year by Steve D here.
Please note, this game hasn't been tested. It might suck...
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You’re suits pulling the strings of a MegaCorp. But the ‘Corp is falling - you and your associates have been picking it apart for months now. You want as many assets as possible before it crashes. But not the most, nor seen to be responsible for the crash - they will be charged with fraud...
To play, gather: 2-4 players, a Scrabble set, and a Jenga tower.
Separate Scrabble vowels from consonants. Players take 5 vowels and 9 consonants each. Players make words in secret (minimum 3 letters). Oldest player begins.
Players have a conversation - when asked a question, answer it - attempting to goad the other players into saying one or more of their words.
When a word is said, the player who owns it immediately halts play, reveals it, and replaces the letters. They draw new letters of the same amount, then either remove or replace Jenga pieces up to the amount of letters in the word (minimum 1). They then restart the conversation.
The game ends when the Jenga tower falls, and the knocker loses. The player with the most Jenga pieces loses hardest. Whoever has the second most pieces wins.
Lather everything in Cyberpunk and describe it.
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I'll be playing it over the next few days to see what it's like. If you've got an idea for a 200 Word RPG, let me know in the comments below, and then submit it on the site!

Research & Dragons: Fate Accelerated

Last night I ran the first game of a new project of mine - a series of RPG experiments where I take a new system, a new style, and run it in a method I have never done before. This session began after mid-day, and went until midnight, with teaching the rules, planning the game, character creation, and finally play all occurring at once. This is Research & Dragons.

For the first session of Research & Dragons, I chose the following variables to test:
  1. System: Fate Accelerated.
  2. Style: Period Political Intrigue.
  3. Method: Zero Preparation; Player’s Create the Setting (at the table).

Needless to say, I was terrified, but in a good way!

So how this is going to work is I will outline how the session went, and then I will break it down into an analysis of these three variables and discuss my findings. At the end is the Verdict, where I trace out my findings and advice. If you don’t have time to go through everything, at least read those three short paragraphs!


Session Rundown

We began play at 3:00 PM on Saturday 12th, September 2015. The idea for this particular experiment was born in the car heading back from a camping trip, and immediately after a short Facebook conversation about some themes, and organisation. We came to the idea of running a no-magic “medieval” courtly intrigue game with no direct combat. All ‘combat’ would be social intrigue. We had some ideas for the setting - such as a warmer planet with 2 suns, a culture of veiling yourself in public, and some ideas pertaining to noble title passing by right of virtue rather than familiar bloodline.

Then came game day. The limit of my preparation was to print out character sheets, the game creation sheet for Fate Core, and a list of names for males, females, and places (I chose Babylonian names, as I haven’t used them much before). With our materials gathered, myself and four players - Alex, Amelia, Felicity, and Genevieve - sat down to discuss the game.

I quickly sketched out the core rules of Fate Accelerated. In brief, you roll 4d6 (we used normal dice instead of Fate Dice, and substituted 1-2 for a Minus, 3-4 for a Blank, and 5-6 for a Plus) and add your Approach (a score from +0 to +3) to beat a target number or an opposed roll. You have Aspects, which can be words or phrases that describe a factor about your character. You can invoke Aspects to gain +2 to a roll, or to reroll your dice, but this costs a Fate Point. You regain Fate Points by having your Aspects be Compelled by the GM or other players to make something bad happen to your character as a consequence of their nature. Done. Rules sorted.

Next was setting creation. I began by prompting my players with a few questions, but very quickly they began riffing off each other’s answers, and I had to madly take notes. They developed in full steam ahead of me, with me throwing in suggestions here and there to liven up the tension. Using the Fate Core Game Creation Sheet I was able to guide this a little better, and asked them for the major movers and shakers, as well as the centres of conflict, and the current issue and incoming issue of the world.

In the end we got some truly unique results. In addition to the features I mentioned above during our Facebook back-and-forth, we developed that the world was in a pre-Dark Ages, Iron Age level of technology, with a political landscape similar to that of the Roman Empire, the Persian Achaemenid Empire, and in some ways the tribal nature of Dark Ages Scotland.

We discovered that there is pseudo-religious tension between those who worship the suns and walk freely beneath them, and the aristocracy which believes in veiling themselves from the sun and living nocturnal lives in veneration of the moon. We learned of the divided nature between ‘puritan’ aristocrats who believed in more traditional monogamous and insular (read: almost inbred) families, and the ‘liberal’ aristocratic movements where a matriarch and a patriarch of a noble house have countless suitors and mates, and the children of an entire house belong to everyone.

We discovered two guilds: The Guild of Roses, for female courtesans who traded their skills for the fruits of their own wombs (taking in children to use as wards and playing pieces in foreign courts), and The Guild of Thorns, for male courtesans, who trade in information garnered from their attentions. We learned of the strict laws that forbid the two from consorting with each other for fear of the power they would wield.

We also learned of a curious custom where nobles have “Senses” or “Censers” (the richer you are, the more you have) - servants who act as an extension of your body for that given sense. So a noble could have an Eye who is expected to observe and tell their master everything they see, or an Ear who listens to another noble’s Mouth, or even Feet who carry you on palanquins, and Hands who give and receive gifts and signs of affection. The play of veils, and the use (and ignoring/recognition of a Censer) becoming the main dance of these ridiculous nobles.

And the beauty of all of this? I did very little. I sat back, and watched as my players became not only engrossed in the world they created, but deeply invested and engaged - plotting and planning openly.

It was, therefore, time to move to character creation. We began with High Concept Aspects, and then Troubles, which were easy to determine given the nature of my players’ engagement. Next came, in a similar style of Fate Core a process of each player dictating a situation in their past for which they gained another Aspect. Another player would then jump in and dictate how they made it more complicated or helped, and in turn gained an Aspect and determined a familiar bond between characters.

By game start, we had a well fleshed and interesting setting, with 4 characters who were ripe for political intrigue. What we didn’t have, however, was a starting point. This was quite difficult for me, as the players and I knew the issues at hand, but the characters didn’t. I was faced with the weird job of cleverly and interestingly informing players about things they already knew. Luckily, my players were willing to just banter at each other, and the awkwardness I felt in my ability to deliver the beginning was quickly overridden.

We played for several hours, during which the characters learned of several interlinked plots to overthrown the Queen, a mysterious southern continent that was at the centre of this web, and also learned of the major players. We didn’t, however, have time to finish the session with anything remotely close to a satisfying ending, and perhaps this one-shot will need to be extended out to a mini-campaign (or more, depending).

My Findings


The System: Fate Accelerated

The Fate Accelerated system, augmented with bits and pieces from Fate Core, is truly wonderful. Whilst it required a little bit of explaining up front, the mechanics were simple enough that players were experimenting with them right out of the gate and having a lot of fun even during character creation!

The flexibility of the Aspect, Stunt, and Stress systems allow for exactly this sort of game. However, I am wary of the advancement mechanics and the utility of the system for anything more tactical.

Fate Accelerated seems entirely suited to political intrigue and social combat, with the Actions and Stress system making immediate and perfect sense. You try to butter up the Queen? That’s Creating an Advantage. You’re discrediting an opponent? Attack them with your Clever!

Interestingly enough, and this was proved through play, the mechanics work best as a player-vs-player system, which was incredibly enjoyable. Combat took some time to do, but it was mostly because we were working through heavy intrigue. Even still, everyone was keenly engaged during the play experience.

Perhaps my favourite facet of the system is the transparency of the game. There is no illusion that the GM is the authority, and that the other players are the audience for the GM’s story. In truth, I was a casual observer for much of play, and merely stepped in to provide rulings (and even then, it was a discussion at some points). This is a wonderful thing because, without prior rules knowledge, within a single session players (who themselves have never GMed before) were able to grasp and adapt the rules to the situation.

There is one thing I will say about the system, though. You cannot play Fate Accelerated, or Core I presume, and think to win. This is a standard of all roleplaying games, but in Fate it is painstakingly obvious. If you want to see your player characters succeed over and over, then find another system. Fate is about exciting and dramatic tales involving exciting and dramatic characters - and drama means things go wrong!

The Style: Period Political Intrigue

Political intrigue is hard. I was terrified that it wouldn’t work, and am entirely indebted to my players for it working. Without them as strong and motivated characters (and players), the game simply would have fallen flat and been an utter disaster.

However, there were a few key things I noticed that I can impart:

Fewer NPCs who have greater weight between them is good. If there are too many NPCs, it becomes confusing to follow, but if you have a powerful few then it flow a lot smoother.

Allow the PCs to drive the fiction. No matter what you as the GM may feel is interesting, the players are the ones who will engage and give you your greatest resources, so listen intently and throw back everything they do. For instance, one of the greatest points of tension came about because a player failed a Careful test in their scheming, and a powerful NPC just happened to be there. This was emergent - I had no intention of the Queen being near the discourse, but it was the most exciting and dramatic thing that could occur at the time, so I made it so!

I will definitely be running more political intrigue games in the future, and this single session has given me so much fodder and experience already.

The Method: Zero-Prep, Player Setting

This was terrifying. Honestly, don’t do this if you’re inexperienced. I’ve been GMing for 17+ years, and I found it stressful at times.

However, it was also amazingly liberating. This game was the first game where I truly felt that they players owned the fiction as much as I did. I don’t think anyone left last night thinking that I did a good job running it, but rather than we all ran it together amazingly!

Despite this, I feel there are steps to take to prepare oneself better for this kind of session. A list of questions to ask the players would be ideal, rather than a flat open expanse of nothing to come with. Whilst I was lucky enough to have the players run away with the idea and build it themselves, it could easily have led to Blank White Paper Syndrome, in which case a few ideas to bring it back on topic would have been useful.

I would also suggest reading appropriate fiction beforehand. I have been reading Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Quest, and I found myself more than once falling back on ideas and assumptions about how to improvise from the way the characters within the story act and improvise. Because the book is largely political intrigue, it enabled me to well picture how a session should run, and the outlines of the objectives:

Someone wants something for some reason. They can’t use violence to get it. They must convince, coerce, connive, and mostly corrupt to get it. Go from there.


The Verdict

 Fate Accelerated is an amazing game that can be taught in minutes, and can be extended out to infinite settings. It does seem, however, to be limited in the play styles it supports. If you’re looking for crunch or tactics, look somewhere else. You will not find that here. This is a system about flexibility without forsaking depth.

Fate Accelerated can be downloaded for pay-what-you-want at Evil Hat Productions.

Political intrigue is a tricky style to play, and requires deep player engagement. Do not attempt to use it with guile - ironically - because it won’t work. Be up front to your players that intrigue is the state of play and that there is no room for shooting/stabbing first. You can’t do that. It won’t work. But that isn’t to say you can’t defeat people. Political intrigue is all about rising to the top, and you can only do that by stepping on the people below you!


Zero preparation, in addition to letting the players create the setting on the day of the game is a scary but rewarding experience, and will allow you to grow as a GM. It isn’t for the inexperienced, but is something I feel every GM should try at some point. Lastly, even though it is zero preparation, prepare to be unprepared. Read what you can, know the rules well, and know your players. They are your setting, your cast, and your entire game. Play them.

Versamus 30k: We Did It, Baby!

I'm very proud today. I'm proud because versamus has reached 30,000 page views!

That's pretty intense, I have to say... 30,000 is a lot more than I ever dreamed I would get way back when I started. My writing has changed a lot in the 3.5 years, and my life has changed a lot more. I've grown as an individual and, most importantly for this blog, as a Game Master.
This photo is a metaphor about how I've been standing still with my hands cupped in front of my for so long that a tree has started growing in them. It has no relevance to this blog. None. Nothing about Growth. I'm just bragging that I can no-hands photograph.
In the 3.5 years I've finished a major campaign, graduated university as a Games Designer, and begun working in the industry. I've even started freelancing! I helped release a WFRP 2e fan supplement, and began writing my own... It's been a busy few years.

To express the growth that has gone into this time, and to pay homage to the beginnings of versamus, I am going to rewrite, and re-release my first four articles on the site - Emotion in Gaming (1, 2, 3, 4).

Thank you to everyone who has ever read anything on this site. A second thank you to anyone who has ever commented! (I don't get many, so when I do, I get very excited!!) And a third and far-from-final thank you to those who have encouraged me along the way, shared my work, or let me know that anything I've written has actually been worth reading. You guys are the reason there are 30k views on this blog. Not me. I had very little to do with it...

Cheers, and I hope I'll be doing this for a lot longer :D

Where Have I Been? And A Monster For Your Troubles...

Greetings,

It's been a while. It certainly has been a very long while. Much has changed, and now that the effects of Tzeentch are beginning to wear off I am finding a little more time to talk about those changes and other topics which I do love to natter on about.

So here goes...

Since I last spoke, I've: visited Japan for 2 amazing weeks; changed vocations (now professionally working for a Games Design studio in Melbourne, Australia - Twiitch); gained a housemate; radically altered (and somewhat stalled, due to increased work) my WFRP 2e campaign, Marienburg: Sold Down the River; begun work on The Sands of Athla in ernest (and hired a team to make it possible); begun freelancing for some professional tabletop ventures; and prepared myself mentally, physically (*laughs endlessly*) and emotionally for the prospect of being best man at my best friend's wedding...

So, you know, same-old.

Most (maybe all?) of these matters are topics I want to discuss more, though I wont make the mistake of promising them now. Let's just cross our fingers, shall we?

What I will give you now, however, is a monster concept that I wasn't able to jam into my latest submission (and as such it would go to waste otherwise). I give you the Hiveworm for your troubles:
Some travellers marvel at the strange formations that mountain ranges take. The educated among them often see mountains which don't quite fit with tectonic science. To some, these would be curious exceptions, but for those surveyors who have investigated, they have proven to be the source of nightmares. These 'mountains' are in truth gigantic hive-cocoons for a race of worms know as Hiveworms. Hiveworms come in three varieties; the small Slaver which coils around the necks of larger species to enslave them in protecting the hive, the horse-sized Chrysalists which devour rock and extrude it in a film to build the great mountain cocoons, and finally the mountain-sized Queens which live within the bowels of these cocoons and breed he lesser two varieties. These beasts operate towards their own goals with an almost sentient level of intelligence - certainly staring into their black beady eyes one feels a being of hate and madness staring back.
Stat it up (or suggest systems that you want me to stat it up into) and enjoy!

Hopefully we will talk again soon (and I will get a chance to show you some of what I've been up to!) 

Creating Impossible Worlds & The End of A-to-Z

Greetings all,

It's been a little while since I last posted. A great many things have happened, and in the end they got in the way of the last few posts I was going to do on the Marienburg A-to-Z. But, I am here to let you know what was happening, and what will happen next.

First of all, as I may have mentioned, Impossible Worlds was experiencing some problems. They are far to myriad and complex to go into here, so I am posting the link to the Post-Mortem for you all to read if you so wish:


Additionally, I am here to let you know that I am currently working on a PDF of the entire Marienburg A-to-Z series. This will include a polished up version of the posts made between A-U, as well as the unposted V-Z. I will release this freely on versamus, for all viewing pleasure.

On this, I am looking for a couple of artworks to scatter throughout. I might end up using some of the stuff in the Marienburg: Sold Down the River book, but if you know of any artwork that would be fitting, please let me know.

I hope everything settles down soon, and I can get back to my regular posting.

All the best, and I hope you have time to get in some gaming soon!

Character Profiles - Jorn Hussen

Greetings all!

My apologies for my lack of posts recently. Between looking for work, and Impossible Worlds, I've found far less time than I would like to devote to writing for versamus. However, I have managed to whip something together for you all, in the vein of the old Altdorfer character cards.

I present to you Jorn Hussen, first of my Character Profiles series - a stream of NPCs that I will be creating using the Expanded Character Module produced by the fan-community for WFRP2e.

Feel free to download a copy, tear him apart, feature him as is, or whatever you please.

Enjoy!

Herbalism - An Apothecary's Handbook

I wrote this a year or so ago for one of my players in my WFRP campaign - Stahla (later, Lord Magister Stahla Lehrling of Praag) - as she expressed an interest in exploring the realms of herbalism and potion making.

Ever one to dig into rules and rip out the beating heart of balance, tinker with it, and shove it back into some catastrophic automaton with nuclear missiles... Ok, I'm straying from the point. The point is, I made it, and I thought I would share it.

Happy?

No, you never are, are you?!

Download Herbalism - An Apothecary's Handbook


Download it, give it a whirl, and have fun!

Published Settings: Wading Through the Muck

Of late I have been delving into the city of Marienburg, and as such have been reading lots of Marienburg: Sold Down the River. Reading through this material has kicked up my old thoughts on playing in an established setting, and I thought I would give my new musings a go...

Published Settings: Wading Through the Muck

Marienburg isn't the first published setting I've ever played in - but it is by far the most detailed. Usually, like with Praag or Into the Expanse, I find some way to bypass the majority of the information whilst still holding onto the mainstay themes - but something is different about Marienburg.

M:SDtR is such a comprehensive look at the otherwise unique city that I am finding myself both mystified by the wealth of knowledge and somewhat annoyed. I love that there are hundreds of ready made hooks for me, and I am adapting many of them, and shaping new ones from the information given, but I find something off about the process.

Whilst I am enjoying it, no doubt, I find the amount that is written is hard to wrap my head around. Unlike Praag, the setting isn't evolving naturally in my mind - it isn't built with broad strokes and then little bits are being added in. It is laid out in terms of districts, and then it goes through, important building by important building, with an important NPC accompanying each one. This is cool, because it gives me heaps of detail, but it is terrible because it references aspects that I can't find, or can't accurately remember because they were 3 chapters ago.

I'm finding that the whole thing should be written in a more concise manner, but then that asks the question, "How could it be done better?"

Principals of World Building

There are generally considered 2 methods of World Building, which are not mutually exclusive (in fact, almost every World Builder I've ever met has used both for the same world at different times). These are Top-Down and Bottom-Up

Top-Down

Top-Down World Building assumes that the World Builder is starting with the broadest strokes possible. They may create a planet, with its climate features, tectonic plates, etc, and will leave massive gaps. They will name a few countries, maybe, or even just continents.

In terms of Marienburg, this would be drawing the map, naming the districts (or Wards), and perhaps loosely outlining what each is: Tempelwijk is where the temples are, Suiddock is the main dock, Elftown is where the Elf Enclave is. Simple, and broad.

Once this first step has been done, the World Builder will go onto create the major trade centres, or cities, etc, in each country. They will probably name the government, and outline some basics about it. For Marienburg, they will talk about the Ten, and the Directorate, and the Guild We Haven't Heard Of.

They will keep going down a step when they have finished the previous level, filling in the gaps of people once they have outlined the roles and the whys.

This system is great, because it gives everything context, but is difficult because it presents to much work from the get-go. A World Builder working at this level has to think of a lot of things at the same time. So, many turn to Bottom-Up...

Bottom-Up

Bottom-Up is the inverse of Top-Down. The World Builder doesn't care about the world as a whole, but the individual. They will begin with a concept, like a guild, or a character, or even a system of magic. Suggest it begins with a Crime Lord. They will work him out, fill in his details, and then build his gang members, and then the Guild itself, then the location it is based in, then the city, country, continent, world from there.

In Marienburg terms, you'd start with the secret that St. Olovald isn't actually a saint, but a god in his own right. Then you'd make Sister Hilli to tend his shrine, then his history, etc.

This system is great because it allows more thorough creativity and individual cool ideas, as well as a much more manageable work load. It falls down, however, in that the World Builder often ends up with many small islands, barely connected to one another. Doesn't that Crime Lord need to interact with other organisations? Now you have to go back and edit!

What Does This Have To Do With Published Settings?

Everything. The way a published setting is written determines how it is read, and therefore, learnt. I suggest, like good World Builders, to create and write about a setting in a mixed way. Obviously one can't do both in book form without copying all the text twice and presenting it first by broad strokes, and then by individuals... But they could do that with a wiki...

Using a wiki program, or a wiki-capable program (like MyInfo, which I have now been using for a year) allows the World Builder/GM to slowly add to his work and manage it, whilst linking to other threads, and organising the entire thing into manageable chunks/folders/tags.

My Advice on Published Settings?

If I could say one thing about published settings it is that they will never be as good as your setting. You will always present your own setting better than a book ever can. This doesn't mean you should throw out your source books, but it means you have to make them your own.

Get a wiki together, and build it as you will use it. Don't include everything, otherwise you'll just be copying the book, but include enough that it makes sense, and allows you to access everything you'll need to, session to session. Keep it updated, and you'll manage that setting, and wade through that muck.

New Do

Well, I said I would do it, and thus I have.

I've finally gotten around to reworking the look of versamus so that it is a little neater, and everything is a bit easier to find. I am still looking for ways to improve the site, so if you have any suggestions, let me know!

Anyway, I will be posting my next instalment on the RPG Puzzles Post-Mortem series after next weeks game, so you can expect it probably on Tuesday.

In other news, the long-running RPG Actual Play Shadow of the Sun has finally been updated again, and I couldn't be happier.

My current long running campaign is finally coming to a close, with around 10 sessions left to it. This is a very exciting time as storylines are coming back up and things are being resolved. Characters are coming into their peaks and tensions are high! Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd Edition ends, I think I might go back to a short Part-Time Gods game before starting "Into the Expanse", my next long running campaign using the Dark Heresy/Rogue Trader rulesets.

I am working on a side campaign that I will be running for my housemates called "The Sands of Athla", which is a Burning Wheel campaign set in a homebrew High Fantasy setting. I will be posting more about this as it develops and as I finish getting prepared for it.

Further, I have started playing in a campaign that one of my housemates is running called "Dr. Wolfgang's Experimentations" which is using the Dungeons & Dragons 3.5e ruleset. Loving the game, but still the system rankles me... But at least I get to play Aliel Telarus, the annoying, sometimes doesn't play by the books, Cleric of Helm. So that's an interesting turn of events.

And finally, Qantm starts back up at the end of the week, so I will be back to work. I have already begun working on it again, but only in dribs and drabs, filling out a normal 18 hour week for it. Come next week I will be starting my internship at Wicked Witch Software in Melbourne, and will get a chance to work with some professional Games Developers - a prospect that I am very much looking forward to!

So, it seems like the next few months are going to be jam packed with games running, playing and making. I couldn't ask for more.

The Importance of Myth


First of all, I would like to apologise for my lack of posts this week. I would like to give you a grim tale of adventure and heartbreak that would act as an excuse as to why I didn't post... But I can't. Sorry.

Hopefully this very long post will make it all better?

* * *

The Importance of Myth

Nothing evokes the human creative spirit more than mythology. Mythology binds a culture that is alien to understandable ideals – love, courage, adventure, fear. By studying the mythology of a culture, one can see how individual nuances of their lives match up to the human condition and ‘make sense’. For this reason, myth is utterly important to creating a Conculture.

What is a Conculture?
I have talked before about Concultures, but I have never really defined them. A Conculture, like its similarly named brother (a Conlang), is a constructed culture for use in world building and storytelling. Concultures are one of the greatest ways to evoke a sense of fantasy in a world: familiar snippets of the real world, maybe a mixture of Nordic practices with Mesoamerican religious ideals, are able to clash with purely made-up concepts to breed new and interesting worlds. This union of the alien and the familiar allows the reader to be sucked in and ‘understand’ the world they are viewing, but also to be lost in its complexity. The world isn’t a cardboard cut-out. It is living and breathing and not fully understood.

How can Mythology be used to evoke Culture?
As stated, mythology can reveal ‘reasons’ behind practises. This could be the meaning behind a certain ritual, the origin of a certain phrase, or why one culture despises another.  Mythology reveals the motivations behind a culture’s people.

One only needs to look at examples of world mythology to see how it can assist in evoking the feel of a culture. Consider Greek mythology. The stories of the various heroes depict a very clear message to the audience: the price of immortality is unhappiness. All the great heroes who strove for immortality (and thus, being equal to the gods) were met with sadness and hardship. Heracles was more beast than man and killed everyone he held dear, Achilles ended up in a meaningless existence in the Underworld which he would have traded for a normal life, and Jason ends it all with being undignifyingly hit on the head by a cross-beam.

Even the stories of the gods represent a confined universe where one must not reach beyond their station: Uranus is usurped, as is Cronus, and so does Zeus fear it himself. Persephone attempts to avoid her marriage to Hades, but is bound by the covenant that was forced upon her. Hera constantly attempts to tame her wayward husband. Prometheus is chained up and tortured for sympathising with humanity. And so the list goes on…

From these stories we can see the ideas of the Ancient Greek culture coming forward: the choice between family and fame, the virtue of humility, the role of the father patriarch who fears the usurping son, the bonds of marriage, the effects of infidelity, the consequences of disobedience…

So how can I make my own Myths?
The process is, unfortunately, a difficult one. World mythologies seem to surround a few core concepts, and almost all world religions have stories that concern every one of these events and concerns.

Creation: Creation myths tend to focus on a cyclic Mother Goddess who gives birth to the world and everything that stems from it. Sometimes, as in the Judeo-Christian religions, this figure is male, and acts as a benefactor-creator to existence. But nonetheless, the creation is always intentional, and the world is always created out of a primordial ‘nothingness’ or ‘chaos’. Furthermore, there is always a residing fear that this ‘chaos’ (which often takes an ocean motif) will once again take over the world.
The Independence of Man: Mankind is either liberated from the clutches of evil or ignorance, or is ejected from bliss by the god/s for some slight. This event represents the beginnings of human civilisation and is often put against the concept of ‘free will’. Mankind is allowed to act as it will, but with the threat of damnation should it stray too far.
The Golden Age: A Golden Age of Mankind begins in which heroes exist and do great deeds. However, the depravity of mankind eventually wins through, and, despite the efforts of the heroes, the end comes and the concept of Death is made very VERY evident.
The Calamity: Chaos returns to destroy mankind for its sins and the god/s regret having made mankind in the first place. However, the piety or justice represented by a select few humans turns the tide of this calamity, and Order is once more restored to a world which is to be rebuilt by the gracious survivors.
The Cycle of Nature: With the world restored, nature is made abundant again and the Creator once again accepts their children and restores the tri-part cycle of nature – Birth, Death and Rebirth – which represents the crops, the cycle of pregnancy and the human condition. Common motifs are seeds and the moon.

In addition to these few ‘core’ myths, there are many parables which are woven into these myths and others. These are culture specific, however, so one must look at what their culture would find important, and then write myths detailing those features.

Now that you have your core concepts understood, you are able to make your myths. Like any stories, these need central characters, but these characters should be simplistic and represent manifested ideals, rather than true humans. Generally, these tend to surround a familial structure. So, one would need a Father, Mother, Son, Daughter, and possibly a Brother and Sister role. Further, the concept of a Justice and a Trickster are pretty universal. These roles can blend together, but they should be defined. (Note, you need not make these clear cut family members. Just simply symbols of those familial obligations. Therefore, you could substitute the “Father” with a bear, and the “Mother” with a doe, for instance (which is actually the system used by the Vendri).)

Now that you have your characters, consider what would happen were these archetypes to interact, and play off of those results. This should be very easy for you to do, so I won’t detail it specifically. I will, however, mention that in many world religions, the Trickster is often to instigator of events.

You should be all set now! HAPPY MYTHOLOGISING!

What myths have you made for your Conculture? What myths do you think are interesting to point out that go against the conventions I have listed above? What can we learn from these myths? Put your answers to these questions in the comments section below! And don’t forget to subscribe to ‘versamus’ on the left side of this page!

Why Conlang?


The subject of Conlanging is an important one to me; it got me originally interested in my main field of study – Linguistics, it got me further entrenched in fantasy world design – ever a good thing, and it attached me to some of the greatest authors of all time – thus flourishing and inspiring my writing. In many ways, my life as it is today is because of Conlanging (for I would not have the same connections with the people in my life without my love of language which stemmed from this hobby).

As such, when I was thinking on what to write to you all about today, I came upon the topic “Why Conlang?” – or to put it more thoroughly, “What is Conlanging, and why is it worthwhile?”

What is Conlanging?
Conlanging is the art of making a Conlang, and a Conlang is at its most basic a Constructed Language. What this means is that it is a full language invented from the ordinary set of rules that govern and exist in all of the worlds languages. In this way, you make a unique brainchild, a language that possibly only you will ever see, read, speak or hear that you can use for no other purpose than to exercise your brain and to explore fun and fiddly functions of language not native in your own language.

Have a nominative-accusative native language? Try making a ergative-absolutive language. Have an isolating language? Try polysynthetic. This experimentation is in my opinion the best way to learn about other languages and Linguistics as a whole.

For a more in depth look of what a Conlang is and how to go about beginning the long and rewarding journey to make one, go here.

So why should I do it?
Well why not? At its most basic, there is nothing stopping you from making a Conlang. Anyone can do it, given enough time. And it doesn’t even need to be an exhaustive amount of time. Most Conlangs are created by people who spend maybe an hour a week on it. Maybe less. That language moves forward at the pace you want it to until it reaches the level you want it to reach. A language is never complete until you say it is.

Freedom is not the only reason behind the “why” of making a Conlang. Conlangs can give you a plethora of material to work from when it comes to writing fiction (as nothing speaks more to the emotions, motivations and mindsets of character more than their native tongue, not to mention conflict when other languages are encountered). Consider this: a language without gender in their nouns, and therefore likely gender equality, coming across a highly categorical language which has a noun gender which encompasses both “female” and “dishonourable” traits. Imagine the conflict that will cause when the female diplomat of the group attempts to speak with the foreigners!

Any writer out there should be salivating with the potential for conflict that language evokes, and if you’re not, then you just might need to watch a bit more Star Trek.

I hope to talk to you again soon,

Ben Scerri

Breaking Tropes – Part 2 – Horror

(Forgiveness is required for my lack of posts over the last few days – the ever present doom of keeping an academic and social face is pressing down on my creative side – which is never a good thing.)

Last article I talked about the breaking of tropes in the Fantasy Genre, which can be seen here. For this second article, however, I shall be discussing Horror tropes. I want to make this very clear early on: I am no master of Horror, and am ever trying to reach the high tones I talk about. However, even though I myself cannot hit the target, I know what it is, so that is what I present for you here.

The Standard
When you talk about horror, you talk about the works of Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker, and Stephen King, and you talk about, especially in the case of Lovecraft, the supernatural. Specifically the fantastic supernatural. The supernatural is by far the most used (and rightly celebrated) trope in horror fiction, because it nicely blends the unknown and uncanny into one reusable archetype. But, unless you happen to be as genius as Poe, King, Barker or Lovecraft, then you might just fall short of hitting that same high note.

So, what can be done?
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein whilst being a brilliant early Sci-Fi and very early Steampunk novel, is also one of the greatest incarnations of the mundane uncanny. The mundane uncanny is far easier to achieve than the fantastic supernatural, and is perhaps less scary but more unnerving. Consider Frankenstein, a man who searches for perfection (and ultimately immortality) who winds up creating a very obvious monster but is unable to see it until it is too late. Then consider that the monster turns out to be a far more human character than Frankenstein who hunts him!

This questioning of morality and questioning of ‘who is the real monster’ is your greatest weapon. Make the villain seem more accessible, and the victims seem ‘worthy´ of their fates, at least to the reader. The story may not be able to scare your reader whilst they read, but a good book will leave them with afterthoughts about what truly just happened, and where they stand on this issue.

That being said, don’t craft a story of such moral twisting horror that you create an army of homicidal psychopaths as your loyal fan-base. But make sure your story is open to discussion about who was the true antagonist.

As a more recent example of this question in fiction, we can look at Showtime’s Dexter (I have never read Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay, the book from which the show was created, so I have to go on the series instead). Dexter is a serial killer with a dark passenger which urges him to cut people up (but not ordinary people, just serial killers), all the while working alongside his adoptive sister, Debra (who on several occasions is unknowingly investigating Dexter’s handiwork) in the police department. Fuelled by a code given to him by his adoptive cop father, Dexter attempts to clean up the streets of Miami. Off the top, this sounds like a fair protagonist – a vigilante who wants nothing more than death for those who disserve it, right? But then the show delves into Dexter’s morality, and his sanity. This is a man who would kill scores of people were he so inclined, and then only reason he doesn’t is an ever fleeting memory of his adoptive father. Most episodes are followed with great online discussions about whether Dexter was right or wrong in his actions, as well as a divide between those who barrack for Dexter, and those who want to see Debra finally catch him and have his secret revealed.

Neither of the above examples use supernatural elements in their horror, but both evoke images of mankind at its worst, and leave people unsure as to who they are.

I hope to talk to you again soon,

Ben Scerri

(Note: For tips on how to run a Horror Campaign in an RPG, go to the following link.)

Breaking Tropes – Part 1 – Fantasy

Over the next few articles I will be discussing the breaking of tropes within genres and all of the areas of interest on this blog. For this first article, I shall be discussing Fantasy tropes. The second part of this series, which deals with Horror, can be seen here.

The Standard
When you talk about fantasy, you talk about the works of J.R.R. Tolkein, C.S. Lewis and Robert E. Howard (and to a lesser extent J.K. Rowling, and David Gemmel). One thing that all of these writers did (very heavily in some cases) was draw on the real world. They made the mundane fantastic. This is a very common standpoint for fantasy, and can be argued to be the common ancestor of all fantasy storytelling (even going as far back as the earliest human religions). Turning our world into something it is not, where people not unlike us can experience fantastic adventures and other worldly powers. That is the dream evoked by fantasy literature, but in our long years of exposure to this, we have become largely bemused by it.

Sure, we will still be thrilled by the greats (and possibly bored stiff by the Biblical listing is names in Tolkein’s works) but anything new that surfaces must break this standard to be accepted. Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, and Trolls are all stock standard fantasy. A reader should be surprised and excited when they read about a fantastic creature, but now most readers are surprised if a book lacks one of these archetypes. That is simply the wrong way to go about the genre, at least, in my opinion.

The New Frontier
Writers such as Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman have, in my opinion, created a new frontier for fantasy where they’ve made the fantastic mundane. Essentially, they have otherworldly heroes (or mundane heroes) thrown into mundane (or fantastic but accepted) situations. Instead of having a humble Hobbit overwhelmed by the scale of the world beyond his home, you have boys born as unwitting princes who travel to their true (and fantastic) homes and finding themselves fitting in better than they did in the mundane world. In this way, the Harry Potter series lies on the border between the two: Harry is bewildered by the new magical world before him, and still ends up in trouble when introduced to new concepts, but finds himself in a seat of power and comfort at Hogwarts where none such existed in the mundane ‘Muggle’ world.

Another stand to take on this system is one of new ideas: new mythological creatures (or perhaps no mythological creatures, or creatures that work differently), new approaches to magic (or, again, perhaps no magic what-so-ever) or simply new cultures given a fantasy treatment. I know I for one would love to read a story about Inuit/Saxons who live in a world with a massive distinction between insane magicians and transfiguring humans, and then everyone else (who maintains their power despite this). But, I guess I’ll just have to finish writing that before I can read it myself *wink*.
(Note, I am sorry for my cryptic tendencies, and please note, I am not really as arrogant as I might have seemed in the above. I was simply dropping in basic information about my ongoing writing project Vengr.)

So what can I do to seem fresh?
The easiest way to seem fresh is to plan. Plan and read. Then read, and read more, and when you’ve finished reading, you should try reading. Get as much information as you can, and then go back and plan again. What did everyone else do? What seemed interesting and exciting? More importantly why did it seem exciting? Jot a few notes down about what was done and why it was enjoyable (or why not) and ten begin brainstorming.

What can you do that hasn’t been done before that fits the moulds of Interesting that you read? Pass these ideas to your friends and see if they’d be interested in reading such a story. But make sure to ask your most brutally honest friends! Nothing is worse than getting ‘yessed’ at and finding out you’ve made a Narnia clone.

I hope to talk to you again soon,

Ben Scerri

Conlanging for Fiction – Part 2 – In Creative Writing

Making constructed languages for your fictional settings is a great way to add depth to the world. Today I am going to talk about their use in Creative Writing.

 

A novel (or piece of creative writing), unlike a Roleplaying game, is completely controlled in context by the author, but still needs to be received. This is the major problem with Conlangs in creative writing. Often those who read your books will be unfamiliar with the concept of Conlangs, or will be viewing your story from their native languages standpoint. This crossing of wires can cause problems.

 

Firstly, there is the problem of comprehension. Many people will simply not understand what is happening, and you will find that confusion will bloom in your readers. This could be because you are too liberal with words from your Conlangs, or you do not introduce them in an approachable manner. My advice on this point would be that you should have the main characters’ speech only ever written in English (or equivalent) but this is merely translation from what is really being spoken. The only time you should pepper your text with words from your Conlang is in nouns and phrases that don’t exist in your language (e.g. ‘gaitru’ – meaning ‘forest watchtower’ from my novel/creative writing/story/thing, Vengr). These additions add enough fluff as to inspire your readers, but do not bog them down in lines of foreign text. (It is also advisable to add a short lexicon or glossary of the words you use from your Conlangs at the back of your book.)

 

(Please note that if you have several cultures in your world, it can be interesting to put a few phrases in from a non-central language – especially if the main characters do not know this language. But do this sparingly).

 

The next problem faced is one of misinformation. Native languages will always corrupt our thoughts when approaching a new language. Consider J.R.R. Tolkein’s Quenya, with its hard <c> (forming /k/). Who hasn’t heard someone say “Seleborn” when “Keleborn” is correct? You must make sure you use simplistic orthography. No outlandish symbols or outlandish rules… As a general rule, you should keep non-plumonics out of your main Conlang/s, but they can feature in the more alien ones (see note above). Just make sure you represent them well!

 

The last problem is one of effort. Let’s face it, not everyone who sits down to read a fantasy novel wants a lecture on language – especially not a fictional language. I advise adding in the aforementioned glossary, but making sure that it is unnecessary to read the book. Everything should be explained in enough detail during the story to make sense, without readers having to flip back and forth. It is advisable to have someone read over your work and then see if they come across concepts they didn’t understand. If they did, explain it better in the text.

 

I hope to talk to you again soon,

 

Ben Scerri