Archive for the 'stories' Category

01
Nov
09

story: don juan tenorio

A play by Jose Zorilla performed in Spain on All Saint’s Day for over 100 years, the story provides buckets of inspiration, be it the nature of the bets taken, deceiving someone, statues coming to life, a feast with an unexpected stone guest ending in a duel or a desperate, last minute plea for redemption from a rake.  This is a romanticised version of the play ‘The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest’ by de Molina, whose original plot was a moralist critique of Spanish honour as a veneer for sin which is a retelling of the legend of Don Juan or his equally notorious Italian equivalent, Don Giovanni.

A stranger enters a crowded Seville inn, wanting to learn about the exploits of a gentleman who his daughter will marry.  The landlord reveals that the gentleman and his companion will arrive shortly.  Devilish rakes Don Juan and Don Luis enter, to learn who won their bet of who seduced more women and killed more men in that year. Don Juan wins on both counts.  As Don Luis fumes, the crowd ask Don Juan if he ever fears the consequences.  Don Juan replies he only thinks of the present.  Don Luis reveals Don Juan slept with women of every social standing save two, a novice about to take holy vows and a woman engaged to be married. Coincidently, both are currently engaged to be married, Don Luis to Dona Ana and Don Juan to Dona Ines. 

Luis makes a rash wager that Don Juan will not manage to seduce a woman of either kind and Juan accepts, says he will do this in a week and that Dona Ana will be the engaged woman!  Now the stranger is revealed as Don Gonzalo, the father of Dona Ines.  He declares Don Juan will never see her again and cancels the wedding.  Don Juan boasts Ines will be his, given willingly or taken by force.  With Ines taking vows, the stage is truly set.  By chance, personality, trickery and bribery, Juan manages both the seduction of Ana and abduction of Ines to his manor in one night.

He does not seduce Ines, instead both tenderly profess their love for each other.  Juan has found someone he can truly love rather than just seduce.  Yet Don Luis arrives, outraged Juan impersonated him in his seduction of Ana.  Then Don Gonzalo arrives with the town guard to accuse Juan of kidnapping and seducing Ines.  Surprisingly Don Juan pleads for the hand of Ines on his knees.  Gonzalo and Luis mock his cowardice and demand his life which pushes Juan to declare having been rejected as a good person, he will continue as the devil.  He shoots Don Gonzalo, stabs Don Luis and abandons the fatherless Dona Ines to flee the country.

Five years pass and Don Juan returns, pardoned for his crimes.  Yet he returns to find his manor torn down and a cemetary for his victims in it’s place.  Juan’s father, Don Diego Tenorio disowned his son and built the cemetary for Juan’s victims with his inheritance.  Lifelike statues of Gonzalo, Luis and Ines are present and the sculptor reveals Ines died of sorrow soon after she was abandoned before leaving.   Juan expresses regret and prays to Ines for forgiveness.  Her statue comes to life and reveals that Juan has a day to live, she has made a deal with God to offer her soul on behalf of Juan’s.  God has declared both will be bound together so Juan must choose for both – salvation or damnation.

At this point, two of Juan’s friends Avellaneda and Centellas appear.  Juan convinces himself Ana hasn’t just spoken to him and in a fit of bravado heretically invites Gonzalo’s statue to dine with them this eve.  During the meal, Juan blasphemes against the dead and Heaven until Gonzalo’s statue walks in.  His friends pass out from fright and Gonzalo’s statue intones Juan’s time is running out before departing.  Avellaneda and Centellas wake up and Juan accuses them of a practical joke to mock him.  They accuse him of drugging their wine to mock them.  A duel ensues.

Now Juan is led to the graveyard by Gonzalo’s ghost.  There Gonzalo’s tomb opens and an almost empty hourglass is revealed.  Gonzalo explains this is Juan’s life, almost ended as Centellas killed Juan in the duel and he takes Juan’s arm, ready to lead him to hell.  Juan cries out, denying he is dead and reaching to heaven for mercy.  Ines appears and redeems him, both then go to heaven together.

31
Oct
09

dracula the un-dead

Nottingham, October 31st 2009.

It is with heavy heart and light hand that I lay down this novel and attempt to compose my thoughts on this latest story of the great Un-dead, Dracula.  Knowing the precious hours spent reading cannot return fills me with a sense of longing for innocence.  Yet what has been read cannot be unread.  What permits me to set this book aside lightly, rather than hurling it with great force as Dorothy Parker suggests is that it has not been penned by Dan Brown.  That I fear would be a burden beyond endurance but it perhaps is an expectation of fidelity and pedigree that make this horror seem less than it is.

Stoker’s great-grandnephew Dacre has with the help of Ian Holt, elucidated events twenty-five years after in what is described as the ‘official’ sequel to the novel and the return of vampires to London.  Yet there is no respect for those characters, the literary style that Bram Stoker used or geography  (Carfax Abbey being in Purfleet, near London not Whitby).  It reads like a modern re-imagining with vampires with entirely black eyes who have forgotten their mesmering stares, whose mouths fill with fangs and who become reptilian brutes in the mode of the movie Van Helsing.

The essential nobility of the survivors is destroyed by ensnaring them in vices and despair.  Almost nothing of the original people survives, fast friendships eroded and frayed, familial and marital bonds now bitter burdens resentfully born by all involved.  Mina Harker is transformed from the resolute muse of her band to vacillating, guilt-ridden ingenue.  Jonathan Harker is a controlling sot trying to numb Mina’s love for Dracula with visits to prostitutes, Arthur Holmwood is bitter and loveless with a death wish and Van Helsing palsied and helpless while posturing before Dracula’s portrait.  Surely they deserve better.

And it appears talent skips a generation.  Quincey Harker has grown into a wilful trust fund baby obsessed with acting rather than inheriting a lawyer’s practice and resentful of family secrets.  Bram Stoker himself plays a part in this book and historical figures take a bow as do with knowing nods to actors who have played Dracula in cameo.  The pall cast by Jack the Ripper offers red herring relief from the bloody massacre of those who killed Dracula.  Or did they?  For it appears a vampire is stalking the night and killing again.

Inevitable comparisons, particularly to Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula and Fred Saberhagen’s Dracula series will be made and I fear this book does not come out favourably.  Another sequel seems certain and a movie treatment almost inevitable.  My heart is filled with foreboding as a result, the book indeed elaborates on the backstory of characters yet falls victim to tropes pervading modern horror including a token lesbian scene and casual violence.  It attempts to explain the inexplicable, renders consistent the mystery that hangs around the undead and in doing so fails to honour the mythos of the original.

Those who fancy a vampire story are welcome to try Dracula The Un-Dead – it achieves it’s goals with some finesse. If you’re expecting a story faithful to the original then be tolerant of the creative liberties taken herein. For a book that prides itself on provenance and pedigree, it is ironic the story takes a divergent approach from the original.  The story is good and well-constructed using modern sensibilities and if it were not touting itself as an official sequel would stand on it’s merits.  Yet the book makes a big play of it’s provenance and it’s lack of faithfulness to the original is jarring.

Score: Three stakes (out of five).  Some nice interplay between characters but while the homework is done in some areas, it surprisingly lacks in others and the heroes of the first tale are almost beyond recognition.

28
Oct
09

character development: rebirth and reinvention

Rebirth – Where a character confronts certain core assumptions about their nature and place in the world with the intent of changing.  To overcome one’s flaws, they must be shown in a way that directly challenges the character and which overcomes their inertia to remain as they are.

This option is not taken lightly, rebirth is traumatic, may have deep psychological or spiritual implications from which the character may grow.  Confronting deepest fears or flaws is optional yet the option to confront these is often taken, whether as part of a point of no return or projection scenario.
 
It’s also rarely advisable to force rebirth on characters in interactive entertainment without prior foreshadowing and demonstrating why the rebirth is necessary.  The process is best served either following a dark night of the soul or a gradual yet visible apotheosis.  If you can manage both at the same time, this is powerful stuff.

Reinvention – The alternative is to either recreate a character to make them new or update an existing character to maintain their relevance, allow for new cultural sensibilities or to emphasise a particular focus – letting a character develop in ways that the original could not predict or that was unsuited to.

Where rebirth acknowledges what has gone before, reinvention prefers to focus on the renewed aspect of the character and minimise or even revise prior knowledge in favour of the new image.  As a result it grants more authorial control over the character and their environment.

This process can kill a character deader than disco if mishandled and is best done with an eye to what makes the character emotionally resonate with it’s audience.  When renovating the character, adding emotional hooks or minor details that catch attention may provide jumpstarts for strong stories.

These two processes permanently change the status quo of a character – a big step!  Done well, it transforms a character into something much greater.  Done badly and it means either applying retroactive continuity which damages their credibility or worse, forcing the character into yet another reinvention.

23
Oct
09

campaign branding: genre conventions

Genre conventions are a framework of elements that set a scene and provide an audience tools to help them imagine it and the wider story.  These conventions give a creator options and choices that make their story or game distinctive and help convey messages (thematic or otherwise) to the audience.

Aesthetic – The specific attributes of a story that helps define it.  The time, place, genre and basic premises of what is expected from the story.  Aesthetic conventions include oppressive regimes, armoured knights or isolated rustic colonies. These need to be outlined up front or the audience will be confused.

Ideological – A specific vision or sensory experience (a ‘look’ or ‘feel’) – if aesthetic is the substance, this is the style.  Here is the grit in your crime drama or the slick chrome in your science-fiction.  As over half of all communication is non-verbal, this is something ignored at your peril.

Rhetorical – Persuasive arguments employed by a story on it’s audience.  The social implications of those arguments may compel (compare The Handmaid’s Tale with Gattaca with Children of Men) an audience and contemporary issues can shape or alter the sensitivity of an audience to a story’s rhetoric.

Ritual – Behavioural actions associated with a particular genre, the traits characters display to comply with the above.  Action heroes are courageous, tough and rebel against authority.  Noir detectives are cynical romantics with internal monologues.  All of these (and more) are explored in one place

Aligning genre conventions can maximise story impact and speed setup.  The trick is to do it so the genre conventions are revealed in an original or innovative way.  Due to high exposure (how many TV shows and movies have you seen this year?) these are used and re-used to a point some call formulaic. 

Judicious blending or contrasting conventions can invigorate formulaic elements.  Robocop is cyberpunk but uses elements of the western and crime drama.  From Dusk Till Dawn is another example of blended genres.
Yet even blending can hit saturation.  The key then is to go back to the classics and work from there.

To give a story zip, it’s worth focussing on character and emotions powered by situations.  In order to provide characters, emotions and situations context, genre conventions provide a backdrop for the drama and help to wrangle thematic elements.

14
Oct
09

morality play

This month’s RPG Carnival deals with morality – both in game and audience. The title comes from a style of medieval and Tudor-era theatre where personified attributes (e.g. justice, charity) urge characters (and the audience) to live a good life.  Born of mystery plays where religion was distributed by the stage, a morality play is a Renaissance take on allegory.

What role does morality have in escapist entertainment?  Escapism permits a get away from the dolorous or banal nature of the real world.  Can entertainment vicariously give a moral holiday to an audience expected only to witness events?  When entertainment is interactive, is simulation of evil merely self-indulgent or actually evil? Where does escapism become transgression?

Moral holiday is a term coined by philosopher William James to describe a temporary respite from moral concerns using belief in an absolute reality – trusting the world to look after itself a while – until the individual is ready to return to striving for a better place.  Protagonists from Richard III to Dexter delight audiences while performing atrocities.  Of course, protests are made due to the immoral nature of it all.

Escapism is compatible with both morality and banality.  Banal escapism is certainly possible by the medium of ‘reality TV’ so moral escapism can and has been since Aesop.  I could tell you about my paladin but the heroic stance is often a default state.  This has led to examples of actual play subverting the social contract of a game due to dissatisfaction with formulaic adventure or a missing incentive to be heroic.

Allen Varney wrote an excellent article, Do The Right Thing where he notes many games use resource-based survival and the scarcity of games considering morality beyond good vs. evil or moral spectra with ethical bells & whistles.  Attempts to justify morality by mechanics foundered on relativism, consider Vampire with it’s paths of enlightenment and numerous hierarchies of sins.

Yet laws without authority or sanction are inherently weak and one size doesn’t fit all even with superheroes.  Moving from zero-sum into business ethics a moment, is a moral element an essential component in games design if only to provide context?  Is morality a genre convention or part of a social contract between players and to a larger extent, society?  Like it or not, the audience is part of a greater thing.

Violation of taboo is a provocative element and may be used for satire or shock value to reinforce established morals.  Using entertainment to justify evil acts exposes your ethical or moral integrity to criticism.  Players can ignore a moral framework and play as they like – rebellion against conformity moves to territory where things may bite not only in-game but also in reality.  How good is a game if it’s censored and censured?

The tipping point comes when the moral holiday becomes the moral retirement plan or when a consensual line is crossed.  Visiting a carnival and living in one are different things and require at least a shift in viewpoint.  Where there are those threatened by an alternative point of view, they need either to be shown the fears are baseless or where appropriate, reminded of the basic right to freedom of speech.

12
Oct
09

character development: the point of no return


Otherwise called that ‘Oh sh-‘ moment where a character realises they must ‘do something’ about a situation or confront something that exposes them to a flaw or vulnerability.  Recognising the point of no return as a point for activity means the following:

Clear Options – Doing nothing must lead to obvious negative consequences.  Retreat must be worse.  If they didn’t bury their heads in the sand, signposts for different options need to be apparent. At least one option represents a theme at odds with the character and their goals or one where a weakness, flaw or gap comes into play.  From such seeds conflict will arise, whether it’s external battles or inner struggle.

Boons – The character may have help in dealing with the conflict – in the form of people (Merlin), places (Rivendell) or even objects (e.g. Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber). They can provide advice, safe refuge or even the tools to achieve success, not only at the point of no return but beyond…

Boons may be related to the theme of the story or adventure, or reflect the attributes of the hero or those attributes sought by the hero (e.g Excalibur is a symbol of kingship and martial power). They help to complete the character if they have suffered in the events leading up to the point of no return (Frodo is healed at Rivendell before leaving with the Fellowship).

Banes – Building a better enemy for a character has been discussed in my post on antagonists. They represent the opposing side of the conflict, in some cases a dark mirror of or an embodiment of the flaws or limitations of that character. The enemy may have boons of their own – or perhaps be the guardian of the boons for the character to obtain.

Banes can also be foils rather than foes, some foils can be turned into allies (e.g. Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca) while others may remain an aggravation and lesson as what failure can lead to. While foils can threaten the character, this is usually not potentially lethal to the character, that perogative belongs to the villain.

Threshold – This is a locus, a place or state of mind that must be achieved in order to begin dealing with the issues determined by the theme or leading to this situation.  The threshold can be a literal doorway or cliff top, or it can be a psychological crisis or journey.  What happens next is up to the character…

09
Oct
09

campaign branding: supplies in demand

It’s interesting to note many games and stories have inherent assumptions about their rules borrowed from real life(TM) yet authors and game masters fail to consider logical extensions.  An example in D&D 1st to 3.x edition is the prevalence of powdered silver as a cleric spell component.  It implies relative ease of access to silver by any priesthood.  Not a problem in a game with a common silver standard.

There are places where this is not applicable.  Settings like Dark Sun where sorceror-kings and history have depleted resources.  Or Ravenloft where werebeasts aren’t only prevalent but rule certain realms.  Another example from D&D is diamond dust.  Diamonds aren’t plentiful without a source.  There are other examples but you get the idea.  Wool without sheep?  That may be a problem…

Rather than despair at the inconsistency, it’s worth thinking of this as a way to give the game or story a bit of distinction.  An explanation why is needed as you will be asked by those inconvenienced by – or who wish to take advantage of – the situation.  To have arrived here, a series of events have taken place.  All you need to do is to establish what they were.

Those with improv genius and opportunity will riff something pithy and insightful into the human condition and the apparent inconsistency. The rest of us have to prepare something – which requires thought and a little bit of judicious problem solving. I recommend borrowing a couple of methods to facilitate this as you’ll need to identify the root causes and possibly turn it into a scene or even a whole story.

The first is taught by three-year old children the world over.  Ask “Why?” in response to an answer to your question.  Repeat five times. Each “Why?” sparks an answer which leads to more information.  More than five and whoever you’re asking may try to strangle you.  Asphyxiation is bad and it reduces my readership. Resist the temptation. It’s been tested by children so you don’t have to!

The second is Dr. Rotwang’s adventure funnel which offers a goal, sets obstacles in it’s way and provides details to give additional flavour.  Use the inconsistency as the goal (in the first example, the presence of powdered silver despite the setting saying otherwise), set obstacles (the whys it’s not working that way in the setting) and use elements of the answers to your five whys as details.

Doing this is no excuse for bad research or sloppy plotting.  It does smooth rough edges off and provides opportunities for campaign branding.  Done well, your audience will buy into the story when they find that the apparent inconsistency has a logical and internally consistent explanation for why things are the way they are.