Thursday, March 05, 2009

The Indeterminacy of Serial World Building

As I mentioned in the last entry, I weaseled my way into copyediting a friend's entries on his Wiki, The Lands of Shadow. I don't believe I'll get credited anywhere, but that's cool. I've already received some benefit from working on it: brushing up on my writing skills and getting exposed to a couple interesting themes.

Working with a "living document" certainly fascinates me while irritating me somewhat (this is not, in any way, a criticism or bitch session). The wiki acts as a source document for my friend's Dungerons & Dragons campaign world. As a living document, it could change depending on how he wants the direction of his campaign storyline to go, how different parties relate to each other (player characters, non-player characters, institutions, social groups, kingdoms, nations), the storyline, landscape of the world and whatever else may change.

Allowing the wiki to have this kind of indeterminacy complicates matters for me, as a writer and as something of a Type A personality. My friend has passed over to me for editing an entry about one of his kingdoms. A part of the entry pertained to the process in which the kingdom's government appoints people to a particular post.

I found the explanation of the process vague and asked him to provide more details about it. He reiterated that he intends the wiki to act as a living document and that he's not sure entirely where he wants to go with the appointment process and how it will relate to the campaign plot. My personality flaws don’t like this feature, but my rational side says it’s cool.

The fact that I get a little worked up about this matter amuses me. Allowing indeterminacy into something that has drama as a main characteristic has at least one positive aspect to it. It allows for freedom.

In a blog entry I read about TV writing one time, the author encouraged telling only as much as needed about a character for that part in the story. As an example, they used a situation where a show introduced two brothers for a character but never mentioned any other siblings nor did they mention that the two siblings were the only siblings the character had. Not limiting the number of siblings allowed the writers to throw in another sibling when it helped the story.

In the case of my friend's campaign setting, not limiting the political appointment process allows for numerous possibilities. Maybe if it gets limited early, a player couldn't get appointed to that position but getting appointed to it would lead to a more interesting story.

Tension regarding the process for appointment could make an interesting plot point, especially if it gets shrouded in mystery. Revealing the process could take away the mystery and, thus, take away the tension.

Simply put, the creation of a story in a role playing game doesn't lie solely with the person running the game, the dungeon master or game master, whichever you prefer. Everyone plays it for fun and everyone comes to the game with different expectations of fun.

Setting up the appointment process to this one position in one way could appeal to one type of player but turn off another player. Having the appointment some other way could appeal more to another player. Leaving this detail open allows for adaptability, to mold the game into a form that allows maximum enjoyment for all.

This kind of freedom works to the advantage of serial storytelling or role playing. Explain just enough to allow things to progress in a fun and satisfying way, but don't explain so much that the options for more fun and satisfaction close off in the future.

When writing, I generally stick to a closed form with a limited run. I have a novel in progress along with a short story that has will require a lot of revisions. I also five papers written and another one to write for my bachelors project, all of them rough draft.

The novel and short story plan on having a good, tight story but won't reveal absolutely everything. I leave out mostly what happens after the story ends. Even though I leave both of them open to possible sequels, I plan on writing pretty tight stories. I won't tell the smallest details or anything like that, but I plan on establishing most of the setting and the events in the stories timeline.

Then again, telling the whole story and providing full details of a timeline allows freedom for change in future writings. After all, if the author wants to have fun and "experiment" with a different system or setting, they just start a new piece or even set a new story in the same setting, just in a different time period than the original story.

The important aspect probably comes down to continuity. Science fiction and fantasy culture focuses a lot on continuity in the fiction they follow. Breaking continuity in these genres can often frustrate fan culture to no end, so much to the point that some writers need to create a disconnect with their fan base to continue writing without compromising the story. I can be guilty of the over analysis vice, at times, even when I try to use it to try defending loose interpretations created by a show or piece of writing.

Fans can sometimes forgive the break from continuity or they can tolerate enough breaks until too many of them occur. Often the show or piece of writing has enough other virtues to make a wait-and-see attitude easy to follow and possibly worthwhile to slog through the irritating parts.

A lone movie or a solitary story without any continuity outside of the celluloid or the two covers proves easier to have consistent continuity. With no set intention to continue within that continuity for longer than a certain period of story, the plot, character, setting, culture, norms, practices and so forth can all be balanced for the good of the story told. As long as the story doesn’t have a sequel or prequel, the single story doesn't set a precedent for a continuity canon that future stories risk breaking or expose itself to over interpretation by a fan community.

Stories told by serial, however, which obviously can include ongoing Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, expose themselves to breaking continuity the longer the story continues. I have major respect for storytellers and TV writers that stay within continuity or break continuity well. Writers of serials that break continuity in a non-major way don't lose my respect if the story continues well enough.

I willfully concede that staying within continuity provides a big challenge. It grows even more difficult when multiple story lines exist and as the story progresses. Add to that all the different characters, nations, personalities, locales and the multitude of factors that exist. Increase the details and increase the interrelations of those details, keeping the continuity increases in difficulty.

I can't blame someone who wants to create a source document (or bible, as they call it Canada TV circles) for not filling in all the details. It allows for more freedom and adaptability in case interesting and fun storylines would require different details than had been originally conceived.

It would especially suck if a minor detail like how many siblings a character has only just bit you in ass because of the over determinacy. That situation might just possibly motivate a writer to break continuity in a very frustrating way rather than just not provide one small detail in the beginning. Wouldn't that just suck, having the writer “cheat” after the fact rather than not create a fact until it was needed?

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