RPG Manuals as Writing Resource

When I added the Net layer to New Glory, I put out a call for a Cyberpunk 2020 book (preferably one a friend was willing to donate as I was rather broke at the time). A friend came through, and another friend saw my request and gave me some Netrunner decks.

I still collect and thumb through cyberpunk RPG books as I’m working on New Glory, just to help give myself a more solid grounding as I write. Maybe straighten out the occasional misconception, or to fill in a gap I hadn’t thought of… (Drafting is for real, folks.) I also have some older D&D modules (still in their boxes), a couple of d20 supplements, and my old Amtgard manuals. You know, for those fantasy setting cravings. (They don’t happen often, but they do happen…)

Despite the fact my tabletop RPG/LARP career is limited at best, why do I have whatever game handbooks and supplements I can lay my hands on? Because I find them to be valuable resources as a science fiction and fantasy writer. Why reinvent a wheel someone else already has sat down and hammered out?

Roleplaying manuals and supplements are great, because they’ve been thought out, written, rewritten, argued over at great length, and playtested. Nuances of language and power have been debated and tested, often by people eager to find ways to exploit the system in creative and clever ways. More importantly, skills, powers, and tools have been balanced against each other, giving you a useful context for weighing them against elements in the world you’re designing.

That’s not to say I just lift things from these books and materials. I figure out what I want to do, and then use them as a reference. Could my characters really do that? Could this exist? Am I looking at this in a way that wouldn’t work the way i have it? (That’s probably the question I’m most often looking to answer as I thumb through these resources.) What possible consequences am I not thinking about that could really screw things up in my story, for better or for worse? It helps keep my worlds in check, and it makes for an interesting research library.

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Writing Technology Across Timelines

I recently stalled out on the Saturday Serial because I was looking at Travis’ tech versus Metis and Dani’s tech, and it didn’t feel sufficiently advanced. But I started looking at tech in my own lifetime and across the various places I’ve lived and across generations…and started wondering if maybe I’m making a mountain of a molehill.

One of the problems is that I really hadn’t sat down and worked out timelines. Travis’ grandmother makes a comment at one point that clearly indicates she was a young adult when Sumisu was assassinated. Assuming standard/average generational spans of twenty years, that puts Travis’ teen years a scant thirty-five or so years later.

Having survived at least thirty-five years of technology change, I can wrap my mind around that. I can remember rotary phones, push-button phones, cradleless corded phones, cordless phones, “brick” cell phones, flip cell phones, small cell phones, and the whole range of smart phones. When I started elementary school, my family had a rotary phone land line. When I was in college fifteen years later, my roommate and I had a push-button cordless landline and were trying to figure out where to put a splitter so we could go online without cutting off the phone. By the time I finished college, I had a cell phone because my parents were worried about me because I was constantly driving all over Texas. These days, my parents still have their landline, but I live off my smartphone and can’t even conceive of having a landline again.

And that’s just kindergarten through today. That’s just the change in phone technology. We could talk about computers (which we had when I was eight, where I drew bubble pictures in a pixelated paint program, and today I have my own computer where I produce voiceover, graphic design, and video projects), or media storage (If you ever want to have fun, try explaining a 3.5″ floppy disk to a teenager. If that wasn’t enough fun, explain punch cards, which my grandfather programmed with.). We could talk about cars, which is kind of a huge exploration of change as consumers’ needs and wants have changed over time. We could talk about appliances. We could talk about so much.

While we’ve had these amazing changes in the technology we work with in our daily lives, there’s so much that isn’t different. I sit in my parents’ house, the house I lived in during middle school, and I think about just how little is really different in this house between then and now. Eleven-year-old-me could walk into this house and generally recognize the world around her. She would look at my computer and phone and wonder if she walked into a real life/M.A.S.K. mashup, but otherwise there’s little she wouldn’t know and understand. While the technology has changed, the world really hasn’t.

Part of my concern arises, not from the level of technology present, but from the level of technology present in each character’s life. Metis is a journalist in a high-tech company, and she netruns in her free time. Her lifestyle involves high contact with technology. Dani, who is maybe fifteen years younger than Metis, is a student who does part of her advanced studies through a distance learning program she accesses through a tablet, and then goes to her netrunning internship, and then spends her free time in the virtual world. She doesn’t know what it means to function without technology. It’s as common to her as clothing.

Travis, roughly twenty years younger than Dani, designs technical art and animation, and then she comes home and reads e-books and listens to music through her tablet. Because of the nature of her family life, she studied exclusively through distance learning programs on her tablet. Technology is a tool, but Travis sets it aside to gaze out windows, to go out with her grandparents and friends. She has a different mindset toward technology than Metis or Dani, and so it feels like I’m presenting a lower level of technology in her time than I do in earlier times, when really I’m just presenting a character who’s less engaged with technology than characters in those other times.

It’s really interesting to think about, because we feel like living in the future should feel distinctly futuristic to our younger selves. And yet, barring major innovation or disaster, progress moves on at a certain rate. And that’s something to keep in mind while working on worldbuilding for a world that spans generations.

The Desert Celery

That biology class you slept through because you were going to be a writer anyway? Yeah…that was a bad decision if your goal was to be a fantasy or science fiction writer. One of the easiest mistakes fantasy and science fiction writers make is having plant and animal life mismatched to their ecological regions.

More often than not, it happens because the writer thinks their new creation would just be cool, and they don’t give a whole lot of thought to how that plant or animal would survive in its environment. Remember my story about setting my flourishing metropolis? People need water to survive. So do a fairly decent number of plants and animals. And those that don’t have made some sort of adaptation to make surviving with little accessible water possible. A prime real-world example of this is the cactus, which soaks up and stores water for drier periods. Can you imagine putting celery, a plant that thrives in moist conditions, in a desert? It would be dead in a matter of days.

This isn’t to say you can’t have a plant or animal in an ecological setting it normally wouldn’t survive in. But you do need to think about how this organism got into that setting, why it decided to adapt to that setting, and how it adapted to that setting. Also, you have to remember that these adaptations don’t often happen in a single generation. They happen gradually over the course of at least a few generations, depending on how major a change it is. It has to make sense within the context of your world’s ecology to make sense to the reader. (This is one of those sticky points that will ruin a reader’s suspension of disbelief.)

As you’re developing the world your story takes place in, remember to think through placing plants and animals. The more logical your decisions are in your own mind (because you really don’t have to show it to readers unless you’re writing hard science fiction or giving behind-the-scenes interviews), the more believable it will be to your reader, and the less often you will shock the reader out of the story.

When Genres Collide

Often when a story has elements of both science fiction and fantasy present, one genre will be more present than the other. This allows the story to be classified as only that genre with a hint of the other. But sometimes, both or neither side will want a subgenre or a story.

And then things get fun.

My favorite example of this currently is the steampunk subgenre. It should seem like a very cut-and-dry classification. Steampunk explores how technology might have developed if we had moved toward hydroelectrics instead. At its core, it’s a heavy study of science, technology, and engineering, making it fall squarely into science fiction (where it originally appeared as a subgenre). But then people attracted to the Victorian settings steampunk stories often take place in took the subgenre in another direction, exploring darker aspects of history and drawing in supernatural creatures, tugging steampunk toward fantasy.

Now when you ask whether steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction or fantasy, you get a very interesting (and often very spirited) answer because both sides really claim elements of the subgenre.

On the other side of the coin, space opera Star Wars has become a small battlefield. Long regarded as one of the landmark science fiction franchises, the entire franchise is now facing a possible reclassification. More hardcore science fiction fans can’t figure out where the science is (because the Force and its midichlorians are presented as a magical power), which means Star Wars fails the most basic definition of being a science fiction story. But no one can really wrap their mind around a fantasy story set so entirely in an alien space. Now when these fans talk about rejecting Star Wars from science fiction, they start talking about “future fantasy”, a subgenre that has yet to really take root.

Some of us love both enough that we’ll enjoy well-executed efforts at combining the two, but it’s an interesting little minefield at times.

A World of Facts and What Ifs

When I was in high school, my English teachers all defined science fiction by three story types: space exploration, utopian society, post-nuclear winter. When I started writing…it became clear very quickly that science fiction is a lot more diverse, and therefore a lot more complicated.

At its core, all science fiction is driven by science. If some aspect of science is the key to the plot, then the story most likely can be classified as science fiction.

When your basic genre definition is so wide open, there is a lot of room to maneuver and tell an interesting science fiction story. You can focus on technology and its impact on relations between countries, and you’ve got yourself a thrilling military science fiction. You can go a more traditional route and send out explorers across the galaxy in search of aliens, elements and material, or just a new life where you get to focus on the nitty-gritty details of how the characters live on their new home planet.

Of course, there are the problem children. Hard science fiction, so often defined as stories driven by strong plot elements rooted in the applied sciences, is pretty easy to recognize as science fiction. But the social sciences, when they become the driving force of the plot, create soft science fiction. (Want some fun? Listen to a debate between writers of hard and soft science fiction. It gets a little crazy.) And then of course there’s steampunk, which will come back up in future posts because it’s such a contested subgenre.

The bottom line is: If your story would appeal to the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) crowd, and you’re looking to playing with extending theories and concepts, there’s a good chance you’re playing within the realm of science fiction.

The Two Questions

The Sci-Fi Channel had station identification spots for a long time that started with a normal, mundane scene that quickly changed into something fantastical and impossible. The wordsWhat if? appeared on the screen, and then shifted to the Sci-Fi logo. It made a point in an amusing and creative way.

Science fiction (and speculative fiction) has long run on that question. What if? What if in the future we all drive hovercrafts that fold up neatly into briefcases? What if we find ourselves citizens of a large government body comprised of various worlds and races? What if we destroy the world and then have to figure out how to survive? What if various illnesses were wiped out? I actually think it’s why I’ve always gravitated toward science fiction. I’ve loved the possibilities of what could be, and the accepting of imaginative explorations.

What if? is one of the best ways to loosen up your creative juices because it gives you a chance to think about other ways something can happen. It’s one of my favorite ways to shake loose a problem that isn’t resolving quickly.

The other great question for beating problems and getting the creativity flowing is Why not? This is a great one to throw out the next time someone tells you that something can’t be done. Just ask them, “Why not?” and watch their faces turn interesting shades of red and purple before they give you some incomprehensible answer that sounds suspiciously like, “It’s never been done before.””

While I think science fiction is driven by What if?, I think fantasy (my other favorite genre) is driven by Why not?. Why can’t there be a place hidden in London where children can learn to use magic? Why can’t there be oversized flying lizards? Why can’t a human transform into an animal and back again?

What if? Why not? When you find your creativity stagnating, just start asking yourself one of these two questions and see where it takes you.