Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Hope Spot #16 "Deconstructing the Cold Equations"

Last month we began to take a look at two developing genres called “rational fiction” and “rationalist fiction” in order to see what they might be able to lend to horror. This month we will continue by taking apart a story that has been both lauded and maligned, in order to teach by example. 

The core element of both rational and rationalist fiction is that “the rules of the fictional world are sane and consistent.” Some stories fail on both of these counts. Others manage to be consistent, but are far from sane. The following story is science fiction, not horror, but the lesson can be applied to any genre. 

The Cold Equations was written in 1954 by the author Tom Godwin. In brief, the story is about an emergency vessel that is being sent to deliver badly-needed medicine to a colony planet. The pilot discovers that there is a stowaway, which is an issue because the amount of fuel on the ship is carefully-calibrated and any additional weight will mean that the ship will not be able to land safely. Alas, the stowaway is a teenage girl who did not know this and merely wanted to visit her brother. Still, the laws of physics are the laws of physics, and since either the pilot or the girl must go, and the pilot is the only one who can land the ship, the girl must be thrown out lickety-split. “It has to be that way,” the protagonist says,” and no human in the universe can change it.” 

The story could make a good example of “paleo” rationalist fiction if it weren’t for a few problems—or rather the same problem, repeated over and over. As Gary Westfahl summed up: “Very poor Engineering.” On TV Tropes, the Headscratchers article for The Cold Equations is more than half the length of the ten thousand-word story itself. 

There is a puzzle, of sorts, in this story: How does one make sure that the medicine gets to the colony, so that nobody dies from kala fever? The solution, Tom Godwin asserts, is that the girl has to go. But there is a chair. There is a supply cabinet with, one might reasonably suppose, supplies. There are clothes, “identification disks”, a gun, paper, pencils, and other miscellany. The girl weighs about a hundred pounds; is there really no way to get rid of that relatively small amount of weight? An “answer story” called The Cold Solution sees the pilot going so far as to lop off some limbs. 

Let us assume, however, that there is not enough miscellany to toss out, that the chair cannot be removed, that lost limbs will put the pilot in shock so that he cannot do his job as a pilot, and so on. A puzzle that sought to portray a good person who was honestly trying every possible alternative—as the story clearly meant to do—should at least have its protagonist consider these possibilities, even if they became unfeasible. By skipping over these possibilities the story betrays that things are happening “solely because ‘the plot requires it’”, which rational fiction is rather opposed to. 

Even so, the story still fails on the aforementioned count of the fictional world being “sane and consistent.” They are consistent, certainly, but are they sane? Absolutely not. 

If stowaways pose such a danger, then the girl should not be able to say, “I just sort of walked in when no one was looking my way… I slipped into the closet there after the ship was ready to go just before you came in.” Something as simple as a locked door would have nipped this plot before it even started. Or a sensor that alerted the pilot to weight and “some kind of a body that radiated heat” before liftoff, instead of an hour later. 

Most radical of all, perhaps the society that designed these ships could rediscover a concept called “safety margins” and actually adhere to them. This is a principle that is basic to all engineering. Yes, the story breaks down completely and you have no plot at all, if there was a little more fuel on the ship. But while the rules of the story may be consistent, they apparently correspond to a greater world that is utterly insane. As Cory Doctorow says, the ideas in this story “present a kind of blueprint for disaster, a willful and destructive blindness…”  

As the story’s existence goes to show you, it is possible to write a tale whose logic goes out the window as soon as you start asking what sort of world it exists in. Indeed, since the editor sent it back three times because he disliked Tom Godwin’s “ingenious ways to save the girl” you can even learn that there are some people who will not accept a story that demands to exist in a reasonable world. Nevertheless, as can be demonstrated just as easily by the story’s reception (especially in present times), you still can’t make a story like that and have it be good

There is a glut of horror fiction featuring characters whose actions do not make sense, and who do not inhabit a world that makes internal sense. This is different from saying that a story about time-traveling robots doesn’t make sense on the basis of our world, which has a conspicuous lack of time-traveling robots. If there are problems with the internal logic of The Terminator then it is because, for example, we are never told why Skynet sent a robot to assassinate a woman in the past before her son became a threat, when an equally-viable strategy for a time-traveling AI would have been to simply start the war decades earlier.

Don’t take this to mean that the film isn’t good. Since we all have different tastes in fiction, and there is even a market for drugstore romance novels with nearly-indistinguishable plots, I can’t even say that The Terminator would have been an objectively-better film for somehow resolving this issue. All that I can say is that neither The Terminator nor The Cold Equations can be considered rational fiction, let alone rationalist.

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Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Hope Spot #14 Lovecraft and Existentialism

I cannot leave Yog-Sothothery alone. It calls to me. It demands a response. But my response is not an affirmation of its statement. It can’t be. Cthulhu is slumbering in R’lyeh, waiting to arise from sleep and death. Nyarlathotep dances to the tune of a million flutes. Indeed, it may be claimed with certainty that in the epilogue it shall be said of our world that darkness, decay, and the red death held dominion over all, and of the coleopteran race to follow ours that this, too, shall pass.
But I am crippled from properly appreciating this, I think. I am an existentialist, and in my existentialism I look out my window and behold the passing away of all that I love and the imminent reign of the Great Old Ones, and yet… and yet still I ask myself whether I shall have my eggs fried or scrambled this morning. In my existentialism, I cannot escape the matter of life, even if it will one day come crashing down to nothing.
The Mythos demands a response, and so I say this: that the presence of these things, standing at either end of our lives like terrible wraiths, does not invalidate the moments between. If men could survive the concentration camps and speak, as did Viktor Frankl, of “the last of the human freedoms,” the ability to choose how oneself will react within the limits of one’s effective agency—then the war is over and was only ever a lie to begin with. It is no matter if Nyarlathotep stands outside, doorknob turning in his grip. The question still remains: How will you act in this very minute, no matter how few or many lie before or after it?
In other words, Azathoth is. This is not to be disputed. But no matter the fact of his existence, as terrible as it is, there still remains the matter of life: what you are going to do with whatever amount of days and minutes you have left to you. After the world ends it may be that as much will have come of helping your neighbor as would have come from sitting on the floor for the lights to cut out, but it nevertheless feels as though they are not equal in the moment that they happen. Rejecting any choice at all, simply because one day it will amount to nothing, is a special kind of cowardice.
“Existence precedes essence,” said Sartre. Cthulhu is waiting in R’lyeh, hungering for your soul, but that does not prevent you from choosing how you react. You may die in the fetal position or with your head held high, and if that is the only choice that can be made then it is all the more important for you to choose well.
With a philosophy of life that is founded upon existentialism, I cannot view Yog-Sothothery as anything but an elaborate and terribly entrancing form of the Absurd. It is for this reason that I find myself drawn again and again to Lovecraft’s Mythos in both my reading and my writing. All of my work in Lovecraft’s playground is based upon approaching it, not nihilistically, but existentially.

Any human who comes in contact with the Mythos must decide zir stance on suicide, and any human who decides that ze is against it must answer the question posed by Viktor Frankl: “Why have you not committed suicide?” If one has not killed oneself then there is a reason for this, whether great or pathetic, and it is in the space of these two moments that my stories play out.

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Thursday, January 14, 2016

Things That I Like: Intensive Worldbuilding

You need to be intense with your worldbuilding, and here’s why: There are more or less two kinds of people who read speculative fiction.
There are the people who don’t care about the world and just want to practice escapism, and maybe a generic world is actually a good thing because they like the formulaic stuff. It’s predictable—this is why dime store romances all hit the same notes and you never hear any complaints from the genre’s fans.
Then there are the people who, like myself, find the biggest draw in speculative fiction to be the new world, because if all they cared about was interesting stories and character development and so on, they could find that in To Kill a Mockingbird and The Lord of the Flies.
In essence, you have people who don’t care about generic worlds and people who want something really interesting, well-thought out, well-developed. A preliminary and totally non-scientific survey is in the process of bearing this out.
You can’t count on selling to the first group. This is important to keep in mind. You can make the most formulaic dribble possible but let me tell you, there are another ten thousand stories out there that are just as formulaic as that one. You can’t stand out with that sort of strategy. If you become a spec fic success with a crappy world then ultimately it was just because you got lucky (or you had name branding, but that doesn’t come out of nowhere) and then the popularity fed on itself from there.
This means that the only kind of success that you can count on is what comes out of an extraordinarily well-developed world. And it is the problem with, say, Wheel of Time or Game of Thrones.
First, Wheel of Time. I have talked with fans who have raved about the series, and every last one of them has admitted that the world itself is nothing new. If you have read fifty other fantasy novels, then you already know the notes for this world. They recommend it on the basis of well-written characters, &c &c. But I can get that in Mockingbird. If I were a Type 1 reader, who was reading for escapism, then maybe this would be enough for me anyhow, but again, you can’t count on that. Wheel of Time got popular but it could have just as plausibly gone another way.
You can’t count on an underdeveloped world getting runaway success.
Game of Thrones has a similar problem. The way that the seasons work is kind of neat. The Others, and the fact that dragons both exist and were extinct for a good portion of time (this usually doesn’t happen in fantasy, remember) are also respectably interesting. The problem here is that it does not take me very long to read over all of the interesting worldbuilding in Game of Thrones and then… I’m done. My biggest thing about speculative fiction is the world, and I will suffer through a bad plot or two-dimensional characters for an interesting world (Hello, Lovecraft). If I can get the full experience of the world in a wiki binge, though, then I am not going to pay out my time to read twelve books.* If I want cray backstabbing and gritty crap going on in my story then I’ll just check out the historical novels section of my local Amazon webpage and get them for a penny plus shipping and handling.
Contrast this, however, with Discworld. The series has a higher word count than Game of Thrones and Wheel of Time put together, but I am still going to read every single book. Why? It is not just well-written. It does not just have a bunch of great characters. It also has a world that is so deep that to make a fully accurate map of that territory would be to walk the territory itself. This cannot be done with a wiki binge.
This is why I started reading Homestuck. I tried to do the wiki binge, and then I realize that I wasn’t going to be able to get it like I wanted to, not unless I was willing to sacrifice my time to a work that was longer than frikkin War and Peace.
So you need to build the hell out of your world. Metaphorically, anyway. If your world really does need a hell then for goodness’ sake don’t build that out of your world. Keep it in.
But the only way that you can be reasonable confident of success is if you can show the people something they have never seen before. As I said to someone else, do not settle for making your frost giants raiders, and your cloud giants peaceful and mysterious. And do not just make them fantasy Mongols and fantasy Buddhists, either. Take inspiration from those things sure, but do it like the world has never seen it done before. 

This is why, by the way, the world becomes ever more important as the series gets longer. I might be more willing to read Game of Thrones if there were just one book, and not a thousand of them, and each one big enough able to kill a cat.

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Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Idea Emporium #10 A Norse Mythos [3/3]

Of the Elder Ones, who died that men might live, we have spoken.

Of Innan, which watches all and moves through all, we have spoken.

Of the devourers, which are bound and will be unbound, we have spoken.

And yet there are others, of we have not spoken.

Those Which Steal the Dead

In death we become food twice-over. The maggots of the corpse, the dwarfs, grow out of our spiritual corpses and feed further. These are the mi-go.

Or so it is said.

It is not that they feed upon the dead, but that they steal away the dead for their purposes. The dead are refitted, born anew as meat-machines to do the will of their re-animators. Through the dead, their puppets, the mi-go act.

The mi-go do not hail from this space. They do not come from this world, nor from any other star which could be reached in this universe. The light of this space is poison to them, and its radiation sows disease in them. In the brightness of the moon they are blinded and made lethargic. Beneath the glory of the sun they fall and cannot move, and die in hours. And even the starlight gnaws at them by inches.

Their artificial skins are clumsy things, not fit for the work which they desire to do in the bowels of the Earth. So they reside in shielded chambers in the hills and on other worlds, and from these places direct their puppet-dead to do their work. The dead are sustained by elixirs drawn out of the body of Yig who is bound beneath the sea, and this is why they have come to this world to do their work.

Here is truth: The mi-go do not waste their tools. The body is one thing, and the mind another. But of what they do to the minds of the dead there is nothing which should be spoken.

The mi-go make pilgrimages to the cities of Hastur and Shub-Niggurath, but these are not their cities. They dwell in labyrinthine complexes of mines and forges far beneath these places, close to the planet’s core. They hear the whisperings of Azathoth who is bound beneath the mountains, and the words of Nyarlathotep who is his master’s will, and they make parley with these powers. Their dealings with such beings have made them wise beyond comparison; the price which they have paid for this is not known.

Their Majesties of Colour

There are things which learned men call Colours. These things come from the place between the stars, and to them they always return, but in the time between they sit in the midst of life and suck it up. Not even Innan knows why it is that they do this, whether it is that their spawning is the purpose or only a byproduct of the process.

But as they sit and sup at the world, they pose the risk of leaving contamination behind them. There are times when this contamination weakens, decays, and is no more. Just as often, these fragments find a place in the life around them, trading predation for parasitism. But they often die, parasite and host together, and it is only very rarely that stability is attained.

In the books of Innan they are called the Ielb. To many sorcerers, they are called ylves, or elves, or aelfen. They are those in whom the Colours have adopted a totally new mode of existence, and even of reproduction. They are beings of sickness and madness, leaving the seeds of death with a touch and driven to madness by the pain and the rotting of their minds. Without the Colours, they would surely die.

They seek to spread. They do so through their children, calling for wives and husbands from among their followers, those who would call upon them for the sake of their powers. The pollution of the Colour continues in their line, weakened but still present. These ones are totally mad, for they have never known anything but the fragments of Colour which are in their bodies.

When one of the Ielb has grown very old, too old for its Colours to sustain it, the death of old age finally comes. When this happens its Colours are still unable to return to the stars, but sits and infests the corpse. The followers of the Ielb take the Colours and divide them, and eat, taking this sacrament into themselves so that their own lives may be extended.

The Wild Hunt

Some say that they are dwarfs as well, or black elves. It is said that they are servants of Innan, or worshipers of Cthulhu. Perhaps they are all these things.

They are feasters on the dead, vulture carrion kings. They scour the world as the mi-go do, but the thoughts which they steal away are destined to serve a less unspeakable purpose: the recovered minds of the dead are a mead of inspiration for the Wild Hunt. The thoughts of the dead are consumed to expand their knowledge and in some unknown manner preserve their bodies.

The chief of the Wild Hunt is one-eyed Onsdag, the child of Ve. Onsdag’s body was left to rot away beneath the ocean’s surface a million years ago. It is the creature’s mind which now survives, and because of the secret of this technique it is Onsdag alone of all the Wild Hunt whose body has no need for the minds of the dead. Onsdag leads them onward for—entertainment? to build an army? to simply do what is necessary to survive from day to day?

One day, the sun will grow cold. The keening of the mi-go will spill out across the face of all the world and Azathoth and his Children will be unbound. And the Wild Hunt will stand against the hosts of Azathoth, until Onsdag is devoured by Cthulhu, and rest have been felled by Yig who taught his secrets to Onsdag and was betrayed.

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Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Idea Emporium #9 A Norse Mythos [2/3]

By the works of the Elder Ones, who were before and will be after, were the devourers created. From the ichor and the being of the Elder Ones were the devourers created, and so it is that they are cousins to the Elder Ones.

And it came to pass after their creation that the devourers grew in number, and came to war with the Elder Ones many times. And they were cast down, time and again, till one of their number, whose name was Azathoth, came and made parley and blood-truce with the Elder Ones.

But then Azathoth was cast down and imprisoned in the core of the Earth, where the heat was too great for him to bear and it sickened him like the most potent venom. And the children of Azathoth were bound likewise.

And none know the reason for their binding, whether they were taken in by treason or were betrayers themselves. But the Elder Ones claim their story, and the devourers their own, and if any know the truth then it is Innan— but Innan reveals nothing, and who can say but that the treacherous act was wrought by the very same?

Azathoth and Nyarlathotep, who together are the Father of Them All

Bound in the depths of the Earth is Azathoth, the uncrowned king who lays across a tablet of stone, runes inscribed upon it in the devourer’s blood, and runes cut in its flesh by the tablet’s shards.

It is well known to certain cults that the mind, though it be born of the flesh of the body, may divorce itself from the same and be projected into the world. Most may only project the sensation of themselves, sight and sound and, among the powerful, the feeling of their projection. And even so, many can only be perceived but dimly by the unlearned, and few there are who can work their own will without possessing a body of flesh and bones.

This is called the filgya, according to the speech of Innan, whose own powers rely on a technological refinement of this principle.

Azathoth is one that is counted among the most powerful of projectors. The body of Azathoth lays bound, and even so it projects itself in the manner of a witch. This filgya is no mere extension of awareness and being, but may take physical form, and the name of it is Nyarlathotep.

Nyarlathotep goes to and fro across the face of the world, doing the will of its master, who is itself. It is thought by many that Azathoth will not be unbound by Nyarlathotep’s machinations, but there is much power to be had under the heavens, and who is to say that Nyarlathotep may not devise a way to make the sun grow cold before its time?

It is thought that, according to the records of Innan, humans will survive for many millions of years, but on this matter Innan is not specific. All that is said is that humans will survive to the end of the days of the Earth, but as for the manner of the sun’s dying, whether its aging be hastened or not, this has not been given to us.

Cthulhu, who is the First Child

Cthulhu! who dwells bound in the depths of the sea.
Cthulhu! who is like a three-faced wolf, with as many limbs as he has teeth.
Cthulhu! who is male and female both, and mother and father to its twin children.

To hear the sorcerers, Cthulhu is the moon and Cthulhu is stone. Or perhaps it is only as still as stone, beneath the waves where its brother is likewise imprisoned.

This was the manner in which it was bound: The mi-go were sought to create a prison fit for the devourer, and chains with which to bind its body and bind its mind. And then it was lured therein, with a thousand Elder Ones, whose minds were fit prey and bait for the devourer. Cthulhu consumed them, or consumed their thinking-selves, leaving only thoughtless bodies, and when it turned to depart the trap had already been sprung and it was sealed away.

But the children of Cthulhu were not bound. They escaped, and bred, and their children bred among themselves likewise, and they also took wives and husbands from the children of men, so as to keep their gene-lines pure from the slow rot of inbreeding. And these and their servants look forward to the day when they shall free their distant parent, and with it dance and rejoice and devour.

If it should be that Nyarlathotep shall bring the sun near to its grave before its time, then surely it is the children of Cthulhu that shall aid it in so doing. And then Cthulhu will be unbound, and at the last it will take the sun between its jaws, and then night will come forever to the Earth.

Yig, who is the Second Child

Yig! who is called Father Sea-thread.
Yig! who is sustained by his dying!
Yig! who calls to the doctors of lives eternal, speaking in their sleep.

This is not the only name by which Yig is known, for he was also called Bastet and Sekhmet in ancient Egypt, and Apep and Setesh. And he was worshiped as N’chushtan by the prophet-judge Thutmasha, who murdered a man in Egypt, and as the North Tezcatlipoca by the Aztecs.

It is Yig alone of all his family who was slain by the Elder Ones, and yet in his death he yet persists. There are ways of existing beyond death, and these secrets were perceived by him. Though he lays unmoving in the depths, bound lest he take up his body yet again, the projection of his mind still flits like a haunting ghost through the cities of the world, and speaks to those that are susceptible to his voice.

His wounds are too great to for life to be sustained in his body were he to return to it, and the chains too strong for him to be free were he to live again. But the doctors of lives eternal, who act in his name and according to his counsel— these will surely work out his resurrection and his return.

And till this time he is succeeded by his nine daughters. The names of all of them have not been given unto us, but only three: The Pitching One, That One Through Which One Can See the Heavens, and Bloody-Hair. The names of the others, and even whether they still live, are not given to us.

Shub-Niggurath and Hastur, who are the Third Child

Shub-Niggurath! who is the Hidden King.
Hastur! who is the dweller-below.
Shub-Niggurath! Hastur! which are the two-in-one whose true name is not to be named.

Beneath the surface of the poles, between the heat of the Earth’s core and the heat of summer upon the surface, are the cities of the Cold Ones, which are called the Abode of Mists, and their names are Keylo and Relex.

These cities were before Irem, the first city of men, but now there is only lifelessness, where the Cold Ones and their children sit in deathly hibernation. Their servants descend only occasionally, in the deepest winters, in order to hear the will of their dying-undying masters, to pass into the way of the cult and carry out the will of them that wait below. The walls of the two cities are in grievous disrepair and whole passages are blocked off now, their supports crumbled and collapsed.

There is darkness and mist here, and the whispers of the Hidden King. There are rivers here, or waters that flow through the decaying pipes, and in the waters are the many sicknesses which the Cold Ones bred in their war against the Elder Ones, and which might serve them again.

Surely they are all bound, Azathoth-Nyarlathotep and their children. Surely they will be unbound.

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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Things That I Like: Becoming a Better Writer Through Roleplaying

There was a time when every roleplaying game opened up with an explanation of what RPGs were and described them as being improvisational storytelling with some rules (or a lot of them, GURPS) to govern conflicts, &c &c. The only thing that I find wrong with this is that none of these books have, to my knowledge, mentioned that if you are interested in writing stories then it’s a good thing that you picked up an RPG.
This article is not meant to introduce you to the world of roleplaying. It’s supposed to get you to see roleplaying in a light which you may not have seen it in before now: a way to practice your writing game.
Or, for that matter, to help you to actually work out certain parts of your story. Using a roleplay transcript as the basis for your story is frowned upon in some circles, and I remember at least once coming across submissions guidelines which included it on their list of bad, horrible, no-good things that they never want to see from you. Perhaps unsurprisingly, going from roleplay to narrative has a better reputation in the world of fanfiction. I have to admit looking askance at it in my early days (or even a year ago) but since then I have found roleplaying to be a useful technique for getting into a character’s head in one of my series, The Gods Have Horns, and there is another series of roleplaying sessions that has been doing well enough that we’re considering revising and converting the transcripts over into a narrative form.
It is not only in the world of fanfiction that getting stories out of your roleplaying sessions can bear good fruit. The characters of Dragonlance were developed over the course of a number of gaming sessions. Love it or hate it, the series had produced almost 200 novels and tens of millions of copies. Record of Lodoss War, which began at about the same time as Dragonlance, was originally nothing more than a series of Dungeons and Dragons transcripts published in a magazine called Comtiq. Over time, however, it grew into a franchise with eight novels, fifty-six anime episodes, twenty-three manga volumes, ten soundtracks, ten video games, and two spin-offs. And according to Karen Woodward, Jim Butcher of Dresden Files fame sends “his world-building-ideas on a trial run with his weekly gaming group.”
(At some point in process the work needs to actually be made good, but what’s the difference between a gaming-derived story that needed to be revised eight times over a story that never heard of the world “roleplay” and also needed to be revised eight times?)
This isn’t to say that you should only roleplay something which you intend to turn into a story someday. Just the process of roleplaying (and especially of being the gamemaster) will be helpful to your craft. But rather than try to convince you myself, I will let some established authors do the speaking for me.
In his article “Twenty-Sided Troubadours: Why Writers Should Play Roleplaying Games,” Chuck Wendig gives us the following advice:
“The truth of the story — its essential element, its elemental essence — is that of characters put in conflict. And you see laid bare the nature of all our stories, right there: character-driven conflict. Even more awesome is what happens when you let the players just fuck around at the game-table without even trying to steer them. Eventually, they’ll start creating conflict. Tavern fights, dead cops, stolen items. While this may not always be true to the character it is true to the story: conflict must fill the vacuum and that conflict must be driven by the characters present in the narrative.
“You can’t get writer’s block at the game table. Not as a game master, not as a player. You can’t be all like, ‘Yeah, I’m just not feeling my character’s actions today, let’s try again tomorrow.’ It’s shit or get off the pot time, Vampire Cleric from Minneapolis. You gotta do something. Anything. Stab! Throw a Molotov! Hide under a car! Manifest your Vampire Cleric batwings and take flight above the city!
“Same thing goes for writing. Shit or get off the pot. Do something. Throw a narrative grenade. If anything will remind you of this, it’s the act of rolling the bones with a couple-few like-minded gamer-types.”
In the comments, somebody named Josin says:
“RP makes you learn your stuff and learn it quick, and if you deviate from character or slip out of voice or make the character do something he just wouldn’t’ do given the cannon [sic] you’re working with, the other players will slap you upside the head with a cluestick.”
While I can’t vouch for this myself, a number of people have said that a game called Fiasco is especially useful for polishing your writing chops.
Whether you simply intend to improve your skills or you want to turn your session into a story, I would suggest running one-on-one sessions with just a single person. You can rotate the position if you are both in this for the writing benefits, but in my experience being the gamemaster—if there is one at all—is usually more helpful than being the player (if you’re trying to get into a single character’s head, on the other hand, then being the player might be more helpful). Kirk Kohnson-Weider has roughly four years of thoughts on the subject, in the roleplaying column Duets.
And as far as that goes, /tg/ (of 4chan) has a tradition of large-scale roleplays called Quests, wherein a number of people (anyone who cares to read along in the thread) take on the collective role of the player character (generally). A guide to running Quests can be found here. Adventures on the MSPA Forums are much the same as Quests except that switching between characters is more common and there is a greater expectation that you will be drawing a lot. Not well, just… at all. The websites Anonkun and MSPaint Fan Adventures, for Quests and Adventures respectively, make either one a bit (or a lot) easier to handle.
Before we close out I would like to offer up the wisdom of Greg Stolze, author and game designer, who was kind enough to respond to my very short, one-question interview: Would you consider it good advice for authors to pick up RPing in order to hone their storytelling skills?
“I would say that if an author thinks that RPing sounds fun, it certainly won’t hurt their writing. The way RPing has particularly helped me is by getting me out of my private hermetic headspace and forcing me to interact with other people, through story, in real time. It helps me incorporate others’ interests instead of just getting wrapped up in my own concerns solely. And this is a fine balance, because ‘the things that interest me’ are probably the things I’m most likely to write about interestingly. But writers always run the risk of becoming self-absorbed, and having to absorb others with your story, immediately, in a milieu where part of the control is in the hands of the players and part lies with dice… that cures navel-gazing really quick.
“Another advantage is that, inevitably, players throw GMs curve balls and go off in wild, weird directions. Once you’ve handled that with some aplomb, it helps [you to] relax when you’re writing alone and things go pear-shaped. The ability to relax into one’s creation without losing all momentum is really valuable, and improvising back and forth with players can help with that, I find.”
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Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Idea Emporium #8: A Norse Mythos [1/3]

This month and the next two we’re going to making some changes to Lovecraft’s Mythos, taking inspiration from Norse mythology. We’re going to play fast and loose here, just warning you. Going back and forth between Lovecraft and the Norse until eventually we take a flying leap away from both.

As always, this is free for the taking. Use it in a book or a short story. Grab half of it, twist it around like it did to Lovecraft, and then smoosh it in with another pack of ideas. It’s all fine.

Fallen Giants and Oceans of Blood

Many billions of years ago the Earth was with form, but as yet was lifeless, for there was “naught but a yawning gap, and grass nowhere.” Then came the Elder Ones, which call themselves the Ymacyo. They were explorers, not colonists. They subsisted on the produce of the authumla tanks, which recycled their waste, and there abided for many years.

And then it came to pass that one of them, whose name was Yima, was betrayed and slain by its friend, Ve. Its corpse was disposed of, never to be found, and the rest of the Elder Ones departed soon thereafter, fearful that they had come into some kind of curse.

Their descendants would not visit again for a long time.

All this is according to what is written in the libraries of Innan, whose recorders and curators are from before the world was, and from after it will was. And thus it was, according to the will of one that was nameless, who was in the body of Ve.

The Cord-men of Innan

Inann is not, but was and will be. For it does not abide

They have been called the Great Race of Yith and, thus, Yithians, but that is the name of their homeworld. Their people do not call themselves Yith, any more than humans call themselves Earth or Earthers, but Innan. It means something like “blessed” or “exalted,” but with a tense that implies an ongoing and yet-to-be-completed process, rather than something that has occurred in the past.

There is no difference in their tongue between the bodies of the people and their culture. For a species that propagates by transferring some of its minds to a set of entirely alien bodies, they are unconcerned with molecules. Innan are Innan because they have the culture and learning of Innan. And if we are to refer to them at a specific point in time, or their political territory, we would do well to call it Innan-guard.

 It was one of Innan, whose mind had been projected years in the past into Ve’s body, that slew Yima. Innan did not originate from Earth, but they abode there for a time, both before and after humankind, and they arranged the death of Yima so that its corpse would provide the raw materials from which life might spring forth in the oceans of that world. And this was so, that Innan might have bodies in which to abide for a time.


“Magic” is a word that refers to many things. Magicians work with principles, according to their knowledge, and this is all that magic is, the production of the miraculous through mundane means that are nevertheless unknown to most.

To some it is the pipe-playing which calls heralds of Nyarlathotep. To others it is the use of old technology from before the rise of humankind. Some are binders, who must know the desires of the bound to have success. But to most, it is a writing.

There is no human alive that can translate the words of Innan. Some glyphs were handed down to us by Innan, or by older races that had been given them, and others were stolen away, remembered by those who had been taken to Innan-guard itself and had seen its libraries. But it is known what may happen when a certain glyph is marked down.

When you write a message to a time traveler, it doesn’t need to get the message right away. Probably, your message will be received, and though it be in thousands or millions of years, Innan will be able to act on it all the same. While we do not know exactly what a glyph means, we may have a rough idea of what is being requested. And sometimes, if it fits with the unknown agenda of Innan, the glyph will be answered.

Some write the glyphs in ink or carve them into stone. More valuable, though, is the knowledge of the glyphs as thread. Before Innan departed from Yith, they were blind, and their records were made in the form of threads, not unlike quipu. Although Innan are wholly incapable of using the system when they are in certain bodies, they treasure it throughout all times and are more willing to answer the calls of those that also know it.

This is the name of the glyph by which magicians identify themselves: Kunna. It means “to know by heart” and “to have insight in the knowledge that has passed away.”


This is the end of the Earth and all that inhabit it. It is when the sun grows cold, and the surface of the Earth becomes tolerable once more for the Cold Ones that have inhabit the frozen places in the depths of the sea and deeper still.

Azathoth will be loosed, and his herald will go out before him. Cthulhu will be loosed from his chains. Yig will uncoil himself and breach the surface of the waves. Hastur and Shub-Niggurath will ascend from the buried halls of Kelyo, which is before Irem.

The outposts of Innan which abide at that time will be driven out, and the records kept there destroyed, to be remade at other points in time and space. The remnant of the Elder Ones will be destroyed and all their children with them, by their cousins and their thralls, and the world which was life-filled by Yima’s spilt blood will be made clean and barren once more.

And it will come to pass that in the waste will dance the myriad children of the Cold Ones, until these too pass away, and go out to other worlds. And in the emptiness of the waste there will be left only one being, who is neither Azathoth nor Nyarlathotep, and neither their children or their chosen. And its name is not given to be known even unto Innan, and for this cause it is known simply as The One, who is alone, and reigns alone, and will be alone from eternity to eternity.

This is the end and the way of the world. Foretelling is merely recalling according to the memories of those who have gone further down the river of time, and then returned. Thus, let it be remembered, for it is written even as it happened, as observed by Innan which was present and beheld it all.

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