Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Save or Die!

Every Wednesday, I post an essay or two that relates to anything from reading/writing to gaming to anime to life in general.

"Fiction should always make sense even if reality doesn't."

In the Dungeons & Dragons RPG, gamers have come up with the term "Save or Die" spells. Basically, it's a spell that can spell instant death for any character unless they roll particularly high on the dice. Now some gamers enjoy this part of the game (but then again, they're probably the demographic that enjoyed going through the Tomb of Horrors). I'm not one of them and I think this boils down to the elements of a story. Now I must clarify: playing tabletop RPGs is not the same as writing fiction. But there is some overlap in the sense that both are trying to tell stories.

In fiction, there should be no coincidences. Every word, every phrase is consciously planted by the author and every detail has to be significant, even if it's just to act as a red herring. It might be surprising to tell gamers that RPG games should have no coincidence (especially since a lot of game systems have a luck factor) but for the most part, I think that's what players are expecting. It's okay for characters to die as long as it was a meaningful death. Save or die spells have that feeling that it was mere coincidence that the character died... or that the players won. That's not to say that doesn't happen in real life. In reality, the most unexpected circumstances might occur for no reason at all. A coconut might fall on a person's head and kill them in an instant (in fact more people die by falling coconuts than by shark attacks). Or people simply get hit by lightning. But pulling off those events in either fiction or tabletop RPGs wreaks of deus ex machina, unless we're working with a genre convention (getting hit by lightning might be perfectly normal for a superhero origin story for example). Imagine encountering the main villain of the story and you've been building up this scene for quite some time. But instead of this epic battle between the heroes and the villain, a stray arrow from the nearby battle kills the villain without any planning or action on the part of the heroes. Suddenly, the plot crumbles. (Having said that, that particular scene would have worked if it was the beginning of your story rather than your climax.) In a game, it didn't make sense for the Game Master nor did it make sense for the players. In fiction, many readers will simply deem it unfair. Why take us for this entire roller coaster ride if it's not going to make sense?

Or put it in another way, what if lethal misfortune happens to our players that's not tied to the plot? A freak traffic accident might end up running down one of the characters. Or there's an explosion in front of one of the players and it's not a conspiracy. I've seen Game Masters use a lot of tables to generate lots of random effects but I don't think Game Masters are using a table of random lethal accidents that do nothing to push the story forward. And it's the same with fiction. You don't build up a character with several loose threads hanging only to abruptly kill them. You tackle their loose threads and then you kill them, not before. But quite frankly real life doesn't work that way. Many people die without relaying to their love ones what they truly fear, or perhaps what they've been working on for the past decade remains unfinished. And there are a lot of meaningless and random deaths in the world but that doesn't mean they have to be in your game or in your fiction.

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