Not the Earth
Not the Earth (but your not the Earth)
In the before times, as part of the Guardian Masterclass programme, I did a one-night two and a half hour lecture and Q&A about How To Write A Comic Book. It went well – it sold out its original venue, and then was moved to one twice the size. I was asked if I wanted to do it again, but revised and online. You may guess my answer. Spoilers: it was yes.
As a reader of this newsletter, you know I like my theory, and there’s certainly some of that in there -but this is an intensely practical approach. We start from the ground up, and move into what I consider key universal areas – writing for artists, how to get your best from a collaborator, script as architecture, script as love letter and so on. I have no interest in teaching anyone to write like me, and I try to make this an style-agnostic approach. This is about giving people a framework to think about how they work and to do it better.
A few weeks ago, we debuted the web version of our comic Melody of Cara Delevingne, Sean Phillips and myself did as part of the Rewriting Extinction initiative. The idea being that creatives from various field get together to collaborate a comic about the theme, to raise awareness and money. Go nose on the site for more, and here’s our comic again.
Anyway – the actual anthology is now available to pre-order from all the usual places (UK). And it’s… can I cut and paste the blurb?
The Most Important Comic Book On Earth is a global collaboration for planetary change, bringing together a diverse team of 300 leading environmentalists, artists, authors, actors, filmmakers, musicians, and more to present over 120 stories to save the world.
Whether it’s inspirational tales from celebrity names such as Cara Delevingne and Andy Serkis, hilarious webcomics from War and Peas and Ricky Gervais, artworks by leading illustrators David Mack and Tula Lotay, calls to action from activists George Monbiot and Jane Goodall, or powerful stories by Brian Azzarello and Amy Chu, each of the comics in this anthology will support projects and organizations fighting to save the planet and Rewrite Extinction.
There’s an huge array of talents from so many fields in here – like, do look at the list of collaborators. You can have a blurb like that, and not mention people like – say – Alan Moore or Taika Waititi.
The Image solicits for September are up which includes DIE 20, the concluding issue of the series. Cripes. We’re joined by Kim Jung Gi on alt cover, which we’ve had to tweak to avoid spoilers, but rest assure, it’s an actual cover and not a scrambled jigsaw with missing pieces.
I’ve said for a while I was going to write about how the DIE campaign development is going, so follows a download about it. Skip down if RPGs aren’t your thing, hep cats.
“So… do you know what’s going to happen?” asks Katie.
I’ve just explained the rough shape of the present playtest we’re doing for the DIE campaign. I’ve ran a whole 35 session one before, which let it sprawl naturally. This is a much more constrained game. I’m going to wrap it all up in 10-12 sessions. As Katie has realised, there’s something implicit in that. This is a game with a core narrative and a whole bunch of mysteries. If I know when the end will be, do I know what it is?
It’s a good question, and my answer is “yes and no, mostly no”.
DIE’s campaign mode been in closed beta for a month or two now, and there’s really two parts to it. One is basically what you’d expect from most RPG campaigns – the purely mechanical stuff. There’s a convention that emerged in RPGs, which has crossed over into pop culture, that the longer you carry on playing a character, the more abilities they pick up. The Level Up. You get better, and in many traditional games, exponentially so. DIE doesn’t have the extreme scaling up of power, but you pick up significant toys. That’s all stuff we’re playtesting.
It’s also the easy part. It’s a lot of work and potentially endless, but it’s a task which any designer of games understands. What is a fun toy? What adds to the character? What detracts? What is a meaningful number of choices at any point? It’s easier because that it’s a convention that so many games have, so you have working models. You just work out what applies to your game and what doesn’t.
DIE fetishises a bunch of classical RPG stuff, and gives its own spin on them. As such, we have levels. You go up levels, normally for narrative reasons. As you do, you make choices. Each classes’ main choices are presented in a diagram which looks something like this…
That’s my playtesting google drawing mock up. There’s going to be graphic designers involved, and this is the Fool’s one as it is today, with Al’s present choices picked. You see, every time you level up, you get to pick an option to one you’ve already picked. So as you level up, you trace your way through your abilities, making your own route through the diagram. For example, both of these are characters of the same level, with valid choices…
At the moment, some of the options are more self explanatory than others. To pick Al’s sheet, “A Trip to Clown School” is a number of sub-abilities for Fools, and each time you get it, you get to pick another one. Last night Al picked Never Tell Me The Odds, which means you’ll never lose any game of chance, ever, which obviously has some fun implications for Fools. Hell, the opponent can’t even win by cheating if the Fool is willing to draw a bad luck symbol on their D6.
(Er… Fools vandalise their dice as part of their powers. That’s in the Open Beta rules if you want to know more, but it’s expanded a lot to a sort of currency in the present rules.)
Speaking broadly, in terms of raw power, you top out around level 12, and after that you’re increasing breadth of abilities or selecting things which precipitate world scale events – you’re the head of a Neo Guild, you’ve formed a splinter religion and so on. In some ways, this process has been one of just spreading out the material I had. In the first Betas, the paragons had far too many abilities, so spacing them out further in advancement has only helped the game. It’s a game with a lot of cognitive load on the GM and player, and giving one powerful tool and letting people play with it is better than giving them three which they barely touch.
Speaking broadly, the playtest has been great for this. I just understand my own system and what it does on a different level to when I pieced it together. There is less stuff mugging me because I’m am amateur now. There is still some stuff, but that’s okay. I am an amateur.
But, as I said, this isn’t the hard part, and isn’t what has been mainly on my mind.
What DIE Campaign isn’t is what you may expect from what amounts to a licensed rpg – a list of versions of the characters you see in DIE, some maps and similar. Stats for Ash. Stats for – say – Prussian Dragons, or Dire or the Master of 13 or similar. Whether DIE CORE or DIE CAMPAIGN that the world reflect the persona who visits it is key, and none of that helps. The things we spend time on are those things which are impactful to giving DIE its very specific vibe – the classes and the creatures which form a structure with those classes – as in, , the Fair and the Fallen. That said, we include enough tools so you can in a trivial way cook anyone you want yourselves easily, but the focus is elsewhere. Now, it’s possible (and if all goes well, likely) that we’ll do more down the road, but it’s not core to what we are about at its core. Any DIE campaign has to be your DIE campaign.
The problem is… what is a DIE campaign? And when I know that, how can I explain how to run one?
Speaking extremely broadly, campaign structure in classical RPGs is primarily been limited to the mechanical effects. As in, as your character gets powerful, it’s going to change how they interact with the world, which may speak to how the world views them. Trevor OrcSlayer is a very different person to Trevor DragonSlayer. You’ll get a few thoughts in the core game, but a GM is left on their own to make up a series of adventures. You’ll get separate campaigns sold, certainly, but that’s a different beast. By definition, an add on isn’t central.
The first Beta releases were designed to follow the rough narrative shape of the first arc of DIE. A group of people are dragged into a world by a hostile GM, they traverse the environment (encountering externalisations of their own internal conflicts) and then they reach the final encounter where they decide to go home or not. This was meant to ensure whatever the group ends up doing, you’ll get something which works as a story, and allows you to answer the questions the characters implicitly pose. A start and an end, and it will function as a story. Give the players sufficient input to the specifics of the start, and the freedom in between, and an ending responsive enough to player agency, and you’ll make something that is absolutely yours.
I’m presently calling this mode of play DIE CORE. It’s designed to be 2-4 sessions. As the name implies, I also consider it the core experience. The clue’s in the game. This is what most people’s first experience of the game. You play this. It’ll be a good time.
Then there’s everything else, which adds to it, expands it in all directions, and allows things to get more messy.
How does a more picaresque approach look like? To be dropped into a world, and left to explore there indefinitely… while also having the push towards something that feels dramatically meaningful. How to spend so much time in a fantasy world without the real world becoming less real – that’s an ongoing question, because the big irony that the random goblin you befriended in the first session is more real and emotionally powerful than your character’s parents in most RPGs, because you’ve been around them much longer. How can we have this as an emotionally meaningful thing while also working as a fantasy adventure – the conversation between the two being the heart of DIE?
Well, one answer is to just do DIE CORE and expand it ever outwards. That’s great. There’s a reason why most RPGs don’t include a beat by beat design of running a campaign. Rules for advancement is all they need, and if you feel you can keep the plates spinning indefinitely, you’re sorted. DIE CORE is the core, and the rest of the book essentially is various spices and unusual ingredients. You add the ones which suit your purposes.
But I also present something I call DIE CAMPAIGN, which is an expanded set of structural tools. It’s a hybrid of GM advice, GM worksheet and mechanics. While absolutely driven by the players’ choices, it presents a broad three part structure to guide the game, with each section slowly introducing the world and escalating…
The first third of the game is Exploration, where the group discover the main areas of the world they’re trapped in, and each scenario essentially acts as an introduction to each of the cast, and their obsessions. You explore a region (so getting to know the world) and because the realms is primarily echoing a character’s obsessions and flaws you get to know that one character better. In TV show language, it’s a character focus episode.
When we know all that, we pass over to Interaction – akin to THE GREAT GAME in the comic – where these individual regions start interacting with one another. What was static becomes fluid. The players start to piece together what’s going on. It’s possible that the party splits, and we have rules for that. By the end of Interaction stage, we reach Destruction – the players have discovered what they need to do to go home. Now, as the world burns, either from external apocalypse or the awful machinations of the realms, the players decide what they are going to do. And, inevitably, we end back up with the final decision of whether to stay or go.
It leads to a distinctly different experience to DIE CORE. The key thing I come back to is, while DIE CORE is a game where you are thinking about the specific awful needs that could make your players stay on a world and possibly betray their friends (“What do you want and what would you give up for it?”), DIE CAMPAIGN is a game where you’re looking for answers to questions about the people. That’s the game. Getting to know them, and the truth about them. Why did this person never finish their book? What awful compromise did this person make to get their big break? Why did this person decide to abandon all their youthful ambition? Why? Why? Why?
And are they ever going to do anything about it?
To get more specific, in DIE CAMPAIGN, when you finish your first adventure inside DIE, the GM presents a map to the players. It shows where they are, and shows three adjacent regions. This is the one for my present campaign…
Each of those regions is inspired by a detail of their backdrop which the GM (me in this case) expands to a high concept for a whole fantasy region. You ask the players which direction they’ll head in, and they choose. The exploration begins, of world and character both.
Worth noting, that at the point of showing the map, I’ve only got the vaguest of concept of what’s there. I get a chance to do my prep in the gap between each sessions. And, yes, DIE CAMPAIGN takes place on a world that’s a D20, just like the comic. But its regions aren’t the history of RPGs made flesh. They’re each of the persona’s obsessions and fears made flesh… and, when exploration phase is over, these parts of them go to war. It’s a metaphor, probably.
There’s a sense I’ve had that my game design is somehow an extension of my criticism (in the same way my comics writing has). The point of my games is to essentially render myself obsolete. It’s not enough to write a story. It’s to write a structure which allows you to make your own version of that story at home. I understand it enough to explain it well enough so you can can do it yourself, and then go on to do whatever you want. I’m trying to explain a magic spell and/or a demonic summoning ritual. You do this, and will create something. What, I can’t be sure, but it will be magical and yours.
So to return to Katie’s question, I know that by session 4 we’ll have finished the exploration stage and discovered the shape of the world and their characters. I know then the Regions will start to interact with one another, and tempt the party to split and follow their own needs for a while. I know that by session 10, one way or another, and the players will have explored the space, searching for meaning… and found it. And I know that in the final sessions, they’ll work out what they want to do about it, and what that means for them, and who lives, who dies, who goes home and who doesn’t.
In short: I know that there will be an Act 1, Act 2 and Act 3. I have absolutely no idea what any of that looks like.
I know exactly what happens. I have no idea what happens. That’s why we’re playing, and I can’t wait to find out what we discover.
And, when it’s done, that’s what I want to give to you.
Finished DIE 20 and passed over to Stephanie. I’m pleased I got it to a tight 26 pages – C’s initial feedback was invaluable here, meaningful cuts to open up spaces where it needed, deeper focus on character beats that weren’t landing as I wished. DIE’s was created as a ball of cosmic-spaghetti as an explicit rejection of the the clockwork of WicDiv, so there was always part of me that wondered if it could be landed in any way other than “Nose first into the ground at speed”… but I like it. We get the beats it needs, and leaves it where we want it.
I also had the first proper few meetings with DIE RPG’s publisher, in terms of our exact plans. That is also becoming very real. A lot of things are becoming very real.
Including… an idea. I’m not 100% sure I’m going to develop it, but it’s starting to feel it. I owe an artist a creator owned project for later in the year, and this feels right. It has the potential to be the emotionally clean storytelling I wanted to do with DIE, which I immediately rendered impossile by following the core concept of “a group of adults whose internal loss and trauma is externalised into their fantasy environment” with “Oh – the world is also set in a fluid critical argument about the nature of RPGs.” Messy is, of course, one of the reasons why people like my work. Too Much is an approach that’s taken me a long way… but I look back to some of my earliest work, and see some of the stuff that’s aspiring to poetry in its use of mood, all those Apocalypse Romances with Charity… and this feels like it could be a return to that space. Something clean and sad and almost fable like.
In short, excited, which is a state of perfection all projects are before they devolve to their natural state of pasta.
I then I segued into a five paragraph discussion of spoiler culture which really amounted nothing more than to “FFS! I have no idea what’s going on in Loki, so if you tweet at me before I’ve seen it, you’re spoiling it, and why on earth are you posting screengrabs from a TV show the day it comes out directly at me? Please, can we find a new dopamine source for everyone? This is doing my nut in.”
So I deleted it, and replaced it with a picture of Bertha and Manny.