Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Two Types of Tropes

A trope is one of those things that you often see in movies, television, and prose fiction, some bit of storytelling grammar that recurs over and over. A policeman tells the hero that he's only a few days from retirement, which makes his death all the more tragic. A scientist explains something complicated and someone says, "In English, doc." TV Tropes has a saying, which is that tropes are tools; the nature of this post is to examine where those tools come from and what we use them for.

Tropes are memes

The word "meme" has mutated a bit since Dawkins coined it, but here I mean it in the original sense; a meme is a unit of imitation. One of the primary uses of tropes qua tropes is that they set audience expectations. Invoking a trope allows you to do characterization really, really quickly, so long as you stick to one of the stock characters. A modern audience is very familiar with the Absent-Minded Professor, which means that you can sketch the character in a single sentence without breaking a sweat. (Stock characters and stock plots are, of course, widely hated. Stock characters are recognizable, but that makes them boring.)

For a more interesting example, take the Four Temperment Ensemble. If you go looking for it, you'll see it everywhere, and I don't think that's (just) confirmation bias. Why is it so prevalent? It's a convenient way to divide up a group of four characters, sure, but it's also a way of dividing up characters that the audience will already be subconsciously familiar with, and it draws on the existing culture. By contrast, the Japanese have blood type personality worked into a lot of their fiction, as a totally different way of dividing up groups of four.

Neither of these two divisions are something that someone who was storytelling from base principles would come up with on their own. It's something that exists as a meme out in the world which the author brings into their story to either help flesh things out or to connect with a reader. Often, these meme tropes are then subverted or played with in some way, but their origin is in the collective consciousness.

Tropes are emergent

Some tropes exist because they're too useful not to exist. The Unspoken Plan Guarantee is the principle that a plan which is described to the reader cannot be perfectly executed. The reason for this is simple; describing the plan robs the plan of tension and spoils the action for the reader. If you were rewriting the rules of storytelling from the ground up, you might very well independently invent the Unspoken Plan Guarantee.

Storytelling is inherently an optimizing process, whether the end goal is to delight, depress, or just make lots of money. Because the problems are largely the same from culture to culture, the same tools get invented time and again. If there were a people with no culture, these tools would be invented ex nihilo, because the problem of getting people to feel a certain way with your story would still have the same sets of obvious solutions. When those solutions were invented, the good solutions would crowd out the bad solutions, and eventually they would become tropes.

If I had to break down the dichotomy into a tl;dr, it would be that some tropes are used because they're cultural and some tropes are used because they're the result of good storytelling principles (which probably then stem from something intrinsic to the human brain, giving the universality of storytelling).

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Review: Massive Chalice

I've been playing Massive Chalice lately, and it bothered me enough that I feel the need to write a review. No spoilers, because the game doesn't really have a story.

Long-view Gameplay

There are two core gameplay mechanics in Massive Chalice. The first is long-view gameplay, which takes place over the course of three hundred years. Here, you're building on the land, doing match-making between bloodlines, train heroes, and engaging in research. The second is battle gameplay, where you equip heroes, bring them onto a battleground, then fight against the Cadence.

Massive Chalice claims to take place on an epic timescale, but part of the problem with the long-view gameplay is that it never feels like it. Keeps take years to build, but all that's involved with building a keep is pressing a button and then waiting for the years to pass, which happens over the course of a few seconds as time goes into fast speed. There are five events that can happen when you're in fast mode:
  • Someone dies, sometimes accompanied by passing on a relic or a vacancy needing to be filled
  • Someone is born, no action needed
  • Random events, pick one option
  • Build/research finishes, pick a new one
  • Cadence attack, go to battle
The random events and births aren't exactly irrelevant, but there's not much aspect of choice involved in the random choices, in part because their results are opaque to the player. Deaths do represent an actual choice, because people are one of your two resources (the other being time), but again, there's not that much weight to this.

In part, I blame this on presentation. There's an established visual grammar to moving forward through time; show a spinning clock, then day flickering to night and back again, then the seasons passing from summer to winter and back again, then a tree growing and blossoming. Maybe throw in some blurred lights of passing cars and pages falling from a calendar. Massive Chalice gives you no visual indication of time passing aside from a countdown of years and days. In fact, there's no indication that there's anything going on in the kingdom at all. There are no people moving along the trade routes (and no trade routes), no crops being harvested, no real indication that things are being built, no festivals, no seasons ... nothing. Moving forward in time is a completely sterile experience. There is no appreciable difference in moving through time that makes it different from XCOM, which happens over the course of a year or two instead of centuries.

Another way that presentation falls flat is that you only rarely see your heroes. There are only two times; first, when you're taking them into battle, and second, when you're looking at them in the keep (usually this only happens when arranging a new marriage or replacing the person running the keep). Massive Chalice doesn't allow you to see a baby grow into a teenager who then goes to fight in battles, since in the course of normal gameplay you never see them, just a name and a banner (and maybe some stats). Even your vanguard (those you take into battle) you only see when the Cadence attack, which means that on average, you see them four or five times before they die of old age, and that's if you start them young and never put them into retirement.

My other main problem with the long-view gameplay is the shallowness of choice. There are only two resources in the long-view; people and time. People can either be available as vanguards, used as sagewrights, used as trainers, or used as breeding stock. All of these options are, for no adequately explained story reason, mutually exclusive, even though Cadence battles only take about a day. Okay, so the sagewright thing is explained as those heroes taking up the white banner, stripped of their house so that they might aid the kingdom in matters of learning. But that doesn't explain why people in the vanguard can't have children of their own.

The other major resource is time. Research, building, and finding children all take between 5-20 years and are all mutually exclusive. I suppose one way of thinking of it is that your kingdom's entire productive effort is being geared toward that one single thing, but regardless of what justifications we might make for that, it's not particularly fun or interesting. This is a case where combining trade-offs results in a paucity of actual choices and makes the choices less interesting than they might otherwise have been. Also, because the only resource spent on research/building/recruitment is time, that means that there's very little trade-off. We're only speaking in terms of a single currency.

So how to fix all this? I know that Massive Chalice didn't have a massive budget, so I'll try to stick to things that could have been different that would have given better depth without greatly increasing development time.
  1. Use something else as a currency in addition to time. The kingdom should be producing something; it doesn't need to have complex animations, but I would have liked some basic high level things like stone or iron, which would then be spent on keeps, guilds, crucibles, etc. This would also give the sense that the kingdom was more than the sum of its keeps, and could add some much-needed strategic variety to the game by allowing different plots to generate different amounts of things.
  2. Place the heroes more front and center. If nothing is going to be happening on the world map while time is moving forward, I would have liked to see the heroes aging in real time, preferably with all of them standing around together, grouped by family. If I could see a woman holding a baby who grows into a toddler over the course of seconds, then drops to the ground and climbs up, aging into a teenager, I think I would have felt more of a connection. This does dip slightly into budget issues. Failing that, I would have liked to see some ceremonies, such as funerals, to give some sense that these are actual people who are mourning the loss of their loved ones. For that matter I might have liked an actual graveyard instead of just a list of the deceased with only a banner and name to represent them within a submenu.
  3. I really wish that there were something proactive I could do. All decisions made within Massive Chalice are the result of waiting around until you're presented with a choice (usually a binary one). There is nothing that you can do, most of the time, except pass the time. Most of the time, you want time to pass as quickly as possible, because time is what separates you from actual gameplay. I would have liked some ability to strike out on my own, to take the fight to the Cadence, clear out the creeping sickness, or send someone on a quest. That would at least have given me some pause before hitting the button that speeds through the years. (XCOM includes this as part of between-mission downtime.)
  4. I want there to be more for my heroes to do between missions. This ties in with both proactivity and putting the heroes first, but also with complaints about the game feeling like it's got no weight. Heroes are locked into doing one thing, the same as research and building are locked into one thing, which removes many interesting elements of choice. I would have liked heroes to have children, even if they were children outside of a royal marriage that I had arranged. I would have liked them to be training (and specifically, to establish a padawan/master relationship, which would help them to feel more like real people). While I really like the idea of sagewrights giving up their banners and renouncing their faith, I would have liked some way for my heroes who aren't doing anything to contribute to building or research. If those were distinct things, perhaps they could be barred from research and put their efforts toward building.
  5. Slow things down. Battles happen about once every ten years, on average. If heroes start at 15 years old, that means that they have about five or six battles until they die, assuming that they devote their entire lives to battle (which you don't always want). If battles happened every five years instead, you'd get twice the time with your heroes, so might feel a little bit more weight. Unfortunately, I don't think the core battle gameplay is fun enough to support this. In either case, if you did this you'd want to make the long-view gameplay more crowded so there was more to do in the intervening time.

Battle Gameplay

Battle gameplay makes up the majority of the game. Pick your five heroes, equip them, then send them into battles against the Cadence. This all takes place on a grid, presented from an angle. They have two actions every turn, they can move, they can attack, etc. It's basically just doing the XCOM thing. Notably different from XCOM though, there's no overwatch (the mechanic where you can get in a position to shoot the next enemy that moves) and no cover (though you can still sort of hide from sight).

The first and biggest problem is that there's very little variety in the battles. Here are the types of missions in XCOM:

  • Abduction missions: The aliens have landed, go kill the aliens
  • UFO missions: We've shot down a UFO, go kill the surviving aliens
  • Escort missions: Take this guy to the evac zone
  • Terror missions: Kill the aliens before they kill the civilians
  • Asset recovery missions: Protect the assets and kill the aliens
  • Target extraction missions: Find this guy then take him to the evac zone
  • Bomb missions: Defuse the bomb then kill the aliens
Some of these are fairly similar and only really differ in the sort of art you're seeing when you go around killing the aliens, but others actually change how you play the game. Some of them put on a time pressure that's not in place during the main game, while others put constraints on how you're allowed to position your resources (a major part of the game). In Massive Chalice:
  • Attack missions: The Cadence are attacking, kill them
  • Defense missions: The Cadence have attacked a keep, go protect the people living there
These do not play terribly differently. The people you're defending in defense missions are heroes as well, so the only real difference is that you start with a segregated squad. I should note that in 300 years I only got a single defense mission.

This lack of variety on the tactical level is a major problem, since this is the core gameplay element and it gets repetitive in a hurry. XCOM breaks up the gameplay with variants that force the player to change their playstyle. For the most part, Massive Chalice does not. This means that by the time you're on your tenth or twentieth mission, there's very little that gives you pause and it's a paint-by-numbers experience (but not in the zen way that paint-by-numbers can be good).

The overall tactical gameplay is a bit shallow, but there's enough variety in the classes (three normal, six hybrid) and the equipment loadouts to keep the feeling of newness going. The enemies are varied in their attacks and effects, but I felt like the strategic-level resource hits (enemies that reduce XP, age up characters) were more cute and quirky than tactically interesting. There wasn't too much interesting emergent gameplay that came from it, in part because getting hit for five years only really means that you miss out on half a battle from that unit's expected utility, which isn't much.

Final Thoughts

The two big things that Massive Chalice is missing are weight and depth. This leaves it feeling unfinished, which it might be. I know enough about the software development world to know that sometimes you don't get all the nifty features that you were planning for, so it might be that this came down to budget. With that said, I think the fact that XCOM already laid so much of the groundwork (and was so heavily cribbed from) makes the lack of weight and depth a little puzzling and disappointing. Firaxis had a much larger budget for XCOM than Double Fine had for Massive Chalice, but Double Fine already went for a low polygon art style and skimped quite a bit on the graphics. So if they knew that they weren't going to sell anyone on graphics, why was the gameplay not at least on par with the game they were copying?

I found this game frustrating because it had good ideas that didn't go far enough and an interesting premise that they didn't execute as well as they could have. I was ready to like it, but while it was a decent enough game, it never grabbed me and I don't think that I'll ever return to it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Shadows of the Limelight: Post Mortem

Spoilers for Shadows of the Limelight follow. If you keep reading, not only will none of this make sense to you, but you'll also deprive yourself of enjoying the actual book. So if you haven't read it, get out of here.

I still intend to finish up the second appendix and write an epilogue, and I have ideas ready for the sequel, but I need to get this out because I've been focusing on the flaws too much and hopefully a post mortem will be cathartic.


I think the biggest single problem with Shadows is that the main character, Dominic, is not compelling. Most of my other problems with it extend from that. In the original outline, Dominic was supposed to be the naive newcomer through whom some of the setting could be explored. He was going to slowly uncover the truth behind the other three principle characters (Vidre, Welexi, and Gaelwyn). Welexi would see him as an apprentice and later as a threat, Vidre would see him as a threat and annoyance and later an equal, while Gaelwyn would look to him for approval and eventually have to side with Welexi.

This all went more or less to plan and was basically fine. However, Dominic still wasn't interesting enough or compelling enough on his own.

Even now I have trouble articulating his story. He starts out as a street urchin, estranged from his family, and ... that's not enough. He doesn't have enough in the way of hopes and dreams, he has purposeless ambition, and though he displays agency it's just not enough because there's nothing behind it. It's not even that he's a shallow character really, it's that he's fumbling his way through this new realm of living, being dragged along behind it. His moments of actual action, like taking the lead on stepping in front of the duel with the Blood Bard, seem to happen because he thinks it's something he needs to do rather than because this comes from the core of his character.

If I had to rewrite it all, I would have made him a fanboy, a loyal adherent to Welexi who followed all of the news of the illustrati. I'd actually thought about that in the planning stages, but it felt too obvious and cloying. The character arc would have followed the same general path, but this time Dominic would have had his idealism stripped away from him. He would step up to the duel with the Blood Bard because he imagined that this was heroic. Welexi would still be threatened and we could still follow that arc. Perhaps that would have been too obvious, but I think it would have still been better. But that's not what I did.

I think Vidre worked well; she was complex and compelling, at least to me, and I didn't hear many complaints. I think of the four principle characters I understood her the best. She sat at a nice place in terms of proactivity and competence.

Welexi's reveal at the end of the second act was a little too fast and could have been foreshadowed better, but overall I don't have any other complaints. There was nothing structurally wrong with the character, he could have just been fleshed out a little better. I thought he was interesting despite that. The ambiguity of his character undercuts the end of the novel a bit. Maybe this is a case where ambiguity worked against making it compelling.

Gaelwyn was supposed to be a junkyard dog taken in and made presentable, which he did well enough. I think his relationship with Dominic could have been developed better, but Dominic could have been developed better, so maybe I should attribute it to that.


The plot gets a little muddled at the end of the second act (after the turn). It also gets a little muddled at the end of the Meriwall arc. It's entirely possible that there should have been an arc in between Meriwall and the Iron Kingdom, though I'm not sure what it would have been (and that's why it's not there). One comment that stuck with me was that they could have just sailed around the world, having adventures for ever and ever. I agree with that, and think that the period of stasis could have lasted longer.

I don't quite think that the introduction of the Harbingers was a mistake, but I'm not sure that they added much. If the conceit is that fame gives you power, then maybe the ability to bypass that undercuts what should have been a more full-throated meditation on what it means to be known by people, or the difference between stories and reality when people are motivated towards making a myth of themselves. If I'm going to toss a transformative artifact in there, it needs to have more of a point, more of a way of hitting at the central theme. Maybe I could argue that it's an extension of the thirst for becoming a legend? Again, it's something that I might not do if I had to do it over.

My other thought is that perhaps I should have started smaller. Dominic goes from unknown to being in the company of some of the most famous people in the world. But if I were starting smaller and ramping up more gradually, I would have needed Dominic to be compelling (see above) which he wasn't. And perhaps that wouldn't have worked in my favor either. In fact, it's entirely possible that the Corta subplot should have been cut from the beginning entirely. That subplot definitely should have had a better, more gripping resolution. (I think I was trying to mark the division between worlds, but I don't think it worked.)

The third act could also have been longer and more detailed. I'm not sure that would have improved anything as far as the larger points of the book.

Since I'm not trying to shit all over this thing that I spent six months working on, I thought the ending was satisfactory and pulled in enough elements from earlier that it closed some threads. The idea of winning by presenting a story still seems clever to me, which means that there's a good chance that it's actually clever.


It could have been better, more elaborate, more evocative. Some of the chapters didn't incubate long enough, especially at points where I was already feeling unhappy about the story.

Final Thoughts

I don't think that Shadows is the worst thing I'm written. I wish I could go back in time and do some things differently, but I wish that about most things I've written. I would actually go so far as to say that Shadows is good, though it would need serious work prior to publication. It's got issues, some of which I think I'll be able to avoid on future books or which I might have been able to see if I were more experienced. My biggest regret is definitely the character of Dominic, but that's also one of the hardest things to change in editing, short of rewriting the entire story.

I'll eventually get this novel edited into something that I'm more happy with, but it will probably take some time. Eventually my bad feelings about it will fade and I'll be able to take a more optimistic look at the work; right now my editing work is going slowly.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Creating superpowers through "Yes, And"

Okay, so I've never actually done improv. But one of the basic principles is that you're never supposed to deny and offer made by your partner. If your partner says "I just bought a pet zebra", you don't say, "No, you didn't buy a zebra" because that leaves the scene with nowhere to go. Instead, your partner says "I've bought a zebra", and you say "I asked you to get my cough syrup and you came back with a zebra?". The basic point is that negating something is boring, as is simply accepting it. What you want to do is accept it and then add onto it; this is the "yes, and" principle. With every additional thing you add, you increase the complexity and give more to the scene.

I was thinking about this because I'm working on a new setting and trying to tear apart other settings that I enjoyed to see how they work. Worm is a big one. The most interesting powers within the setting are built on the principle of taking something basic and adding on a restriction. Burnscar has pyrokinesis; yes, and the more fire there is around her, the less control she has over it. Battery has super speed; yes, and she has to charge it up in order to use it. Trickster can teleport things; yes, and he has to swap two things of similar mass.

This is one half of Sanderson's Second Law; limitations, costs, and weaknesses are more interesting than powers. But Sanderson is explicit that his law is not just about creating complexity, it's about forcing more interesting things into the story. I think where I disagree with him is that I think limitations are about complexity and that's most of what makes them interesting, meaning that it should also be possible to add complexity (and therefore interest) if you use an additive rather than subtractive process. I guess I would also add that whether something is an addition or a subtraction is largely a matter of perspective.

Take something like Avatar: The Last Airbender. There are people called firebenders who have short-range pyrokinesis; yes, and they can shoot lightning if they have the right training, yes, and their power increases tenfold when a particular red comet crosses the sky. These things are additions to the core conceit, powers added on top of powers, but because they add on a complication, they add on interest and make things more compelling. We might imagine a simple magic system where mages can control and manipulate glass; yes and there are mages that manipulate sound. This is instantly more compelling, because we immediately set up a conflict and contrast between the two systems of magic.

To some extent Sanderson does this within his own magic systems. Mistborn has a system of sixteen feruchemical abilities and sixteen allomatic abilities and much of what's dynamic and interesting about the industrial era books is how twinborns (which have one from each set) can combine their abilities in unique and interesting ways.

I'm currently working on worldbuilding for a new series and trying to capture some of what I like in other series, which I think is going to boil down to a framework magic system that I can hang all sorts of things on. To this end, I made a quick javascript generator (which I'd embed in this page if I could get rid of the SSL errors). Here are treatments for the first three powers I got through the improviser:

Precognition. Yes, but happiness.

Given that it's a "but", there's an implied limitation. So, the ability to see the future, but limited to only happy things, or possibly only while happy, which might amount to the same thing. As soon as you start looking at something that makes you upset, the vision starts to destabilize.

Emotional manipulation. Yes, and age.

Emotional manipulation is one of those things that's pretty damned wide. The word "and" means that we're adding something onto it, not taking away. Emotional manipulation getting stronger with age feels a little too simple, so maybe we can tie this manipulation to age in a different way. Perhaps negative emotions are tied to getting older and positive emotions are tied to getting younger?

Earth manipulation. Yes, but heat.

Earth manipulation probably means being able to telekinetically move rocks around, though there are a few directions you can take that end of the prompt. Heat as a complication might mean a lot of things: earth manipulation gets more difficult as the temperature increases, earth manipulation generates heat, earth manipulation requires heat as an input, etc. I think I like the first one better, since it brings to mind an earth-mover who stays in colder climates and shuns the fires of civilization.

The generator is not robust and probably has some nonsensical combinations. Each of the lists could probably be expanded in size two or three times over to give more interesting combinations, and weights could be given to the powers and modifiers that are most open to interpretation, or with cascading probabilities. But let me know whether I'm just blowing smoke; I'd love to see some examples given the prompts.