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    The White Wolf LiveJournal Community - Behind the Lines: Mythbusting… and Mythbuilding (#36)
    Much wailing and gnashing of teeth.
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    eskemp
    Behind the Lines: Mythbusting… and Mythbuilding (#36)
    "There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt."
    — Audre Lorde

    One of the things that fascinates me most about building and playing RPGs is the aspect of myth. We talk quite a lot, justifiably so I believe, about Storytelling — that a game is telling a story, and one that grows organically as the characters react to things rather than follow a script. We've said before that this is a very basic human activity we indulge in. Yes, it started as soon as language started, and it influences so much of our lives. We ask flickering screens to tell us stories, and we share those stories in very abbreviated form the next day. History is a collection of stories that carries an insane amount of learning with it. Religion is stories, powerfull ones. So, for that matter, is science — the learning part, the moment of revelation, the explanation of what happened and how you saw a rule of the universe spin into crystalline clarity. We want to tell one another stories, and we want to hear good ones. Even if you've maybe heard part of the story before, in another form.

    Now, the thing is that truly original stories are probably non-existent. Go reductive enough, and you can break down all stories into just a few categories. The most reductive (though probably least useful) is "Man vs. Man" and "Man vs. Nature." Another oft-cited grouping is "Boy Meets Girl," "The Little Tailor," and "A Man Learns a Lesson." Everything else is just tweaks on those story concepts: Boy Meets Girl, There Are Complications, It Ends Poorly. But it's those tweaks to the story concept that make it that particular story: two houses divided in fair Verona, the death of a beloved friend and a revenge exacted in blood, exile, poison, a tragic misunderstanding, and the somewhat ironic ending that both houses will now be unified without it doing their star-crossed scions any good. So while it isn't an original story, it is a fantasic one, one that inspires other people to take their own tweaks on that more elaborate story as a base. Like changing everything to the only street gangs in the world that do choreographed dance-offs and musical numbers before they knife each other in the streets. Or something.

    Which brings us to what we do. And what we do is muck around with some of the oldest and most resonant stories we have, the ones that by their nature engender millions of offspring: myth.

    The core of the World of Darkness (and Exalted and Scion but this column is technically about the WoD, so bug John for his take on this) is the concept that certain myths are true… to some extent. Yes, there are vampires and people that turn into animals and other people who can cast curses and blessings and the ghosts and spirits of the dead or of animals, all kinds of things. And all of these things are somewhat different than they might appear in any given mythological work. The World of Darkness is rooted in the familiar core of those myths, but what makes it the World of Darkness is also where we tweak the stories. The biggest tweak is the most obvious, the selling point: "The monsters are the protagonists." (Or perhaps more techincally, "Some of the monsters are the protagonists. Others are things that frighten even monsters." ) What makes things ours, from that point on, is the variety and detail of tweaks.

    This is, truth be told, where I love my job. I love myth. I enjoy old stories. And like many other people, I like fooling around with them. Not in a deconstructionist way, but in a devoted tinkerer sort of way. It's like playing Monster Garage with actual monsters. Now, the thing is some myths can get kind of... unrecognizable if you cut out the heart. You don't want to go too far. Or rather, since "too far" is an entirely subjective metric, you have to be aware of the risks. For some, the Uratha (and the Garou before them) go "too far" from ordinary werewolf myth — but on the other hand, let's face it, they become eminently playable. They're a refinement of several aspects of werewolf myth, from European fear of the wolf to psychological "beast mind" musings to tribal animistic myths about animal-shifters. By not focusing on any one to the exclusion of others, you get more options. The same's true of Vampire, of all our things.

    But as I said, it's subjective. We all have our favorite myths, and sometimes we want to treat them fairly literally, and sometimes we want to make them more gameable. You can probably tell a lot about an individual developer's personality by what they cram into a book. The original Followers of Set derived more from Robert E. Howard than actual Sutekh/Seth/Set myths. Werewolf: The Forsaken drew more heavily on the bite as an aspect of werewolf myth. At the same time, though, it retained the idea of being born a werewolf and having a First Change rather than the bite as actual transmission — in no small part because that was something that distinguished our werewolves, not just from most myths, but also from our other games. After all, a werewolf-as-transmitted-by-bite game could wind up being more like Vampire than was necessary, particularly if you could do bestial pseudo-lupine vampires in Vampire. And you can — because that's another great mythical archetype that we wanted to make gameable.

    If anything, sometimes it's a bit tricky to actually break apart or reforge one of your favorite myths. Sure, it's easy to retell one you don't like. I'm guilty of that, having once redone the story of Scheherazade to reflect my own personal bias on the tale. (Short version: The ruler who marries a young woman every day and puts her to death after her wedding night deserves a happy ending no more than Bluebeard does.) But if you really like a myth, sometimes you just have to change something even though you like it as is. I've often said that I don't want to see WoD critters or characters that are 100% accurate to their sources. Why? Because then they don't belong in the WoD. They aren't an example of how things are different from our world, they're just walking Wikipedia entries that you can talk to. You need those changes, because then the work becomes… well, if not "more original," which is a fairly worthless metric, more ours.

    And I don't mean ours just in the sense of "all intellectual properties are property of White Wolf, etc." I mean ours, as in yours and mine. Because in the act of telling a story, you make it your own. Every time. Just as a mother reading "Cinderella" to her children might distinctly make it her version by giving the evil stepsisters distinctly squeaky voices, every player and Storyteller (though we are all storytellers together) takes the story and elaborates on it further. The Mekhet gain a new spin in a chronicle with each new scene. An SAS goes from outline to story when the characters make it their own. Each new character, each new bloodline or fetish or kith or whatever rewrites a myth and makes it more relevant to the people telling the story anew. All the power of the myth, imbued with the potency of personal connection.

    That's what's important. Somewhere in between being "original" and being "faithful," something becomes "relevant." And that's when stories start to mean something. As a developer, it's probably one of the best processes that goes on during the job. And if we, in some small way, help our customers to take those beautiful old stories and make them even more personally poignant and relevant to themselves and to their friends — well, then it's worth far more than just the fun we had doing it in the first place.

    Comments
    (Deleted comment)
    From: eskemp Date: January 7th, 2009 10:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
    It was in Guildbook: Masquers, the backstory of one of the notables. It is hardly literary, in retrospect: just one of those little self-indulgences we partook of, like making Moliere one of the Guild as well.
    From: (Anonymous) Date: January 7th, 2009 05:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
    Out of curiosity, how do the developers of WOD feel when their version of a mythical thing becomes more definitive than the original myth? Amongst my geeky gamer buddies, the rules in the Vampire books are pretty much as close to a definitive source as far as we are concerned.
    From: eskemp Date: January 7th, 2009 10:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
    It's flattering! Of course, we have the advantage of writing for continuity, which many original myths didn't, so that may give us a slight edge in some ways. But being ranked among the originals is pretty impressive.
    dawngreeter From: dawngreeter Date: January 8th, 2009 05:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
    Hell, never mind Vampire, I always thought Demon did a better job of explaining Judeo-Christian concepts of Genesis, the Fall and such way better than Christianity ever did.
    zenten From: zenten Date: January 7th, 2009 06:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
    What do you think would happen if you guys took a myth, and just really really ran with it. Like, heart be damned, and only cared about what was cool, and what would work in a game?

    I mean, yes, Exalted sort of is this, but I meant more as a modern occulty horrory type thing like the rest of the WoD line.
    From: eskemp Date: January 7th, 2009 10:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
    That's a tricky one, and would probably vary widely depending on who was doing the running. If it were me, I don't know if it would look too different, because the heart of the myth is usually key to its appeal to me. (Unless I don't like the myth at all, in which case I don't think my game line would go terribly far.)
    eyebeams From: eyebeams Date: January 8th, 2009 12:48 am (UTC) (Link)
    There's never just "a myth." When writers get together, for example, the images, ideas and sense of what's essential differ quite a bit from person to person.

    I mean, if you had to, say, describe exactly what a demon is, in such a way as it could work in an RPG, how much similarity do you think you'd find in somebody else's idea? Not none, but not 100% - and in a game there needs to be room for interpretation, but not so much that the concept doesn't commit to anything at all.
    zenten From: zenten Date: January 8th, 2009 01:24 am (UTC) (Link)
    Not none, but not 100% - and in a game there needs to be room for interpretation, but not so much that the concept doesn't commit to anything at all.

    I'm not sure what you mean by "commit to".
    eyebeams From: eyebeams Date: January 8th, 2009 03:45 am (UTC) (Link)
    I mean that it's still actually about something, instead of just being about a sack of gamer tropes with the tag "demon" attached.

    As Ethan knows (and disagrees with me about to some extent, as do many freelancers and staff), I think many (though not all) of the cries for "toolkit!" are more material for internet discussion than things people actually apply to game play -- people want to start threads about how clever their idea for something they may never run is. (This doesn't mean there aren't hacked/custom games, but the groups I've met doing it are usually pretty quiet about it.) Meanwhile, structure and theme are things that new groups can easily use to get started and veterans can subvert, change and spin in creative ways. Disagree? Find tension with a creative premise? Good -- it's generating ideas.


    Edited at 2009-01-08 03:48 am (UTC)
    zenten From: zenten Date: January 8th, 2009 10:38 am (UTC) (Link)
    OK, that's fairly different than what I was talking about. I meant to get rid of the whole "demon" tag or whatever. Create an interesting thing to game with, and ignore how much it has a mythological connection.
    From: eskemp Date: January 9th, 2009 09:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
    It seems an unintuitive approach to me, because anything that doesn't have a mythological connection of some sort is arguably not going to be terribly marketable (and perhaps not even that interesting to the creators). If you go for "interesting," you will probably wind up using many of the same tropes that myth does — and if you find those parallels, you may find it more intuitive to use them than to deliberately move away from them.

    Take the "grays" in Changeling. They're there because as we were working on Changeling, we pretty much wanted to make sure there was some modern folklore reflected. Now me, I couldn't care less about gray mythology and X-Files and all that. But because they had strong parallels to the faerie abduction myth, it made more sense to include them than to leave them out.

    Myth is kind of inescapable, because it's powerful. We would probably have an easier time "just creating something" that never wound up crossing paths with myth if myth didn't talk about everything people find interesting from sex to death.
    zenten From: zenten Date: January 10th, 2009 01:04 am (UTC) (Link)
    OK, but there's a difference between making sure that what you're doing follows a specific myth, and having what you've done happen to look like some myths.

    I do get that trying to stick to the "essence" of a given myth is part of what makes writing gaming stuff enjoyable for you though.
    From: eskemp Date: January 12th, 2009 01:38 am (UTC) (Link)
    I'd guess it's about the same as trying to come up with something original, and having what you've done happen to have no real connections to anything else in the genre. We don't really hold the former up as an important design goal — an original spin, yes, but "unlike nothing else," no — and as such, the latter is kind of unlikely.
    zenten From: zenten Date: January 12th, 2009 01:51 am (UTC) (Link)
    That's not exactly what I was getting at. I've seen a lot of developers respond to "why are things this way?" when asked about something that doesn't always work so well at the table with the answer that it fits the given myth. I'm just thinking that if you ignore the constraint of it fitting at all with the myth that the result can better fit the other design goals.
    sim_james From: sim_james Date: January 8th, 2009 12:46 am (UTC) (Link)
    There's been some rather noteworthy changes -within- the oWoD cosmology, of course:

    * The Triat dethroned an assumed Christian cosmology when Werewolf was released;

    * Followers of Set changed from Yig Cultists With Fangs to gnostics;

    * Malkavians changed from blessed-chaos sacred jesters to Actual Insane People Who Just Got Creepier;

    * The Sabbat (and the Black Hand) went through more changes than a mutant butterfly.

    A lot of the greater mythological revisions came about during new game launches or changes in edition (ah, Revised flamewars), so it should have been no surprise that an entirely new game universe would see even more dramatic change.
    1sinfutureking From: 1sinfutureking Date: January 8th, 2009 04:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
    For some, the Uratha (and the Garou before them) go "too far" from ordinary werewolf myth

    Don't let anyone tell you otherwise - Werewolf: the Forsaken is as fine a WoD game as any you've put out, Old or New.

    I think that any storytelling, myth or no, kind of depends on introducing something new. Take Watership Down, for example: there are plenty of exodus stories out there, and plenty of underdog stories as well. When you introduce rabbits, then things turn from solid to awesome.

    As a result, Watership Down is one of my most favoritest books in the history of ever, and is hailed as an enduring classic. It's what makes storytelling good (having a strong focus on memorable characters helps, as well - characters are key, but slightly less...central when designing a mythological framework in which to place your characters.)
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