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<   No. 3740   2017-10-03   >

Comic #3740

1 Alvissa: It's an evil fire wizard!
2 Kyros: Well that's redundant. All fire wizards are evil!
3 {beat}
4 Kyros: Er... I mean most fire wizards are evil!
4 Wizard Bandit: Watch it, sonny Jim.

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I looked up the phrase "sonny Jim" to make sure it would be understood widely enough... and I discovered that some people seem to think the phrase is "sunny Jim". And "Sunny Jim" is a mascot for Force brand wheat flakes breakfast cereal, first marketed in the USA in 1901, and currently still available only in the UK. There was also a Sunny Jim brand of peanut butter sold in the Seattle area of the USA. I don't know what, if anything, either of these have to do with the idiomatic phrase though.

For some reason when I think of the phrase being used in conversation - like the mystery wizard is using it here in this comic - I always hear it in the voice of Billy Connolly.

Great. Now I'm imagining that new wizard character in the comic as Billy Connolly.


Which is not a bad thing, now I think about it.

My favourite part of English lessons back in school was the creative writing. While I now better appreciate all the other things my English teachers tried to teach me (grammar, literature and poetry analysis, literary themes and devices), writing my own stuff has evolved into a significant part of what I do. Obviously, I'm writing these words you're reading right now, as well as the comics they are attached to.

A few of the main things I've written have interesting connections:

Despite the connections, writing comics (both gag and story-based) is very different from writing roleplaying game adventures. In fact any sort of traditional linear story writing is very different from writing RPG adventures.

Firstly, there's the audience. The audience for a comic or piece of fiction writing is largely a group of people who you will never know or hear from (assuming you have managed to cultivate some sort of audience for your work). For every reader who writes me an email or posts on my forums about one of my comics, there are perhaps a hundred or a thousand who are completely anonymous and unknown to me. If you're a big-time author of truly popular works, this is even more the case - there are millions of readers you can never know anything about. So feedback, although it can exist, is limited and from only a very small portion of your readership. What this means, effectively, is that you can write whatever pleases you the most. If you want huge commercial success, you might think about what large populations of people tend to enjoy and deliberately pander to that, but for small-time writers, it's basically a labour of love, and so you have to write what pleases you or you'd give it up.

The audience for an RPG adventure that you write is much more immediate and intimate. Most adventures that ever get written will only ever be experienced by your own circle of gaming friends. The interactions with your adventure will generate a good time for everyone... or not. In this case, you know your audience. You should provide something for the player who loves combat, something for the trickster to do, something to tickle the fancy of the one who likes solving puzzles, and some interesting characters for the roleplayer to interact with. If your entire group leans one way or another in playing style, you should bend with the breeze. Offering up a killer dungeon full of traps will delight one playing group, but annoy and bore another to tears. And the feedback is immediate, and from everyone experiencing your adventure. Trust me, you'll know if they're enjoying themselves, or if they're not. Writing an RPG adventure is more of a responsibility than writing a comic or work of linear fiction is.

Even if you are unusual and your adventure is published widely, the people who buy/download it aren't just going to read it and decide for themselves what they think. They will run it as a game with their friends, recreating that intimate experience of a small group of people interacting with the components of the adventure. So your responsibility becomes one of making sure that the Game Master (GM) who runs your adventure isn't left flat-footed by lack of details or gaping plot holes in your adventure.

A second difference between fiction/comics and RPG adventures is perhaps the most obvious one at first: plot linearity. Traditional stories are linear; they begin, they draw the reader through a sequence of events, and they end. Even if the sequence of events is presented as flashbacks or otherwise out of in-story chronological order, they are designed to be read in a real world chronological order that unfolds the story in the way that the writer decides. A writer can guarantee that the reader will experience the story in the sequence intended. So you can reveal things, and then later on you can count on the fact that the reader has already been exposed to those things. This is how you develop the plot.

In an RPG adventure, things can get a lot less predictable. RPG player characters (PCs), played by players, often decide to do things that might not progress the adventure in the way that the GM or the adventure writer intended. An ideal RPG world is one in which the characters may choose to do anything, and nobody knows what they will do until they do it. Adventure writers use a variety of tools to deal with this unpredictability.

One tool is known pejoratively as railroading. This is when as the adventure designer you enforce a linear plot on the characters, using various tricks to ensure that in many cases they actually have no choice in what to do or where to go. Examples include literal blocks to wayward travel, such as roads being impassable or having uncrossable rivers, oceans, or mountains funnel the characters to a particular location. There are also circumstantial blocks, such as law enforcement or capturing the characters and simply taking them to the next adventure location. And then there are situations where the PCs' decisions actually make no difference; for example after recovering the lost Soul Gem, they can either hand it over to their patron wizard, or he'll steal it from them (with no chance for them to stop him).

Railroading is an unsatisfactory and frustrating method for most players, so a good adventure will use more subtle tools to control the plot and keep things limited to the scenario at hand. This often involves not so much writing a plot as such, but rather writing locations and characters and events, without necessarily linking them into a strict narrative sequence. Providing a variety of accessible locations gives the PCs the choice to explore whichever ones they find interesting, in whatever order they wish. They can interact with whatever non-player characters (NPCs) are found along the way, learning information from them or possibly having hostile encounters. These can then provide clues to what locations or people might be interesting to explore next - in this way leading the PCs in the general direction of the adventure climax, but without pulling them directly there.

Events provide a chronological backdrop that supplies additional atmosphere, and in some cases a limited timeline for the players to achieve their goals. NPCs who the PCs don't interact with should have their own goals and tasks, that they complete on their way to whatever it is they are doing. For example, in a murder mystery adventure, the killer will be running around in the background, perhaps killing a new victim every 24 hours unless the PCs track him down and interfere. Or the volcano looming over the village may start smoking, signalling an imminent eruption, and the PCs have to decide how long they can spare to explore the ancient ruins before getting the heck out of there.

So a well-designed adventure is (usually) not linear at some level. There may be a progression from clues, to a map, to a dungeon, to a final boss encounter in the deepest level, but at each stage there should be plenty of options. Even the classic dungeon adventure is wide open in the sense that there is a map (i.e. a series of connected locations) to explore, and the PCs decide what door or corridor to take next - no two parties will explore in exactly the same sequence.

And characters are interesting too. In a linear story, you only ever reveal exactly as much about a character as you require for the plot. In an RPG adventure, characters need enough background defined for the GM to be able to roleplay them convincingly - but how much of that background is revealed depends on the actions of the PCs and their level of interest in conversing and digging deeper.

All these notes about locations, characters, and events come down to the level of author control. Writing a story, you have complete control over these things and how they develop. Writing an adventure, you merely set the stage, and what happens on that stage depends on your players.

Given this difference, there are some things which work fine in a story, but are problematic in an adventure. In a story, you can make a fight as dangerous as you like, or a trap as devious and deadly as you like, because you control the outcome and can always write a way for the hero to prevail. In an adventure design, you simply can't throw a full-grown dragon at a group of low level characters (or a 14-year-old wizard), because they will almost certainly be wiped out. You can't design a trap so deadly that only someone as sharp as Batman can escape alive, because I guarantee you that any given group of PCs is not as sharp as Batman.[3] You have to tailor the challenges to the expected levels of skill of the PCs.

On the other hand, you can do things in a game adventure that don't make sense in a story. A classic example is wandering monsters, or unplanned encounters. Sometimes you just want to liven the game up a bit, or impress on the players that loitering in some area and making a lot of noise while doing so isn't a great idea. So you set up a random encounter table, let the GM roll the dice, and hey presto, a pack of wolves attacks the camp during the night, or a group of goblins leaps out of the dungeon shadows. This provides a change of pace in an adventure, from exploration mode to combat mode, and makes the game more interesting. In a tightly plotted story, encounters like this need to mean something. They establish something about the heroes, or they provide clues to the background plot, or they are directly related to the story. If you throw in lots of seemingly random encounters with no linking structure in a story, the reader will get lost and wonder what it all means. This applies even in a comic strip: The Fantasy gang encountering the wizard bandit didn't happen because of a random die roll. It happened because I had a series of jokes I wanted to tell about meeting a wizard bandit.

Which brings me to the Fantasy and Space theme comics, which were originally based heavily on two RPG campaigns that I ran. The main characters (except for Dwalin) are all direct ports of PCs with the same names, originally created by friends of mine. This defined their personalities for me, and made it easy to write the initial series of comics. Despite the characters being based on the games, none of their comic adventures are directly based off the RPG adventures I ran. Both themes began as one-shot character-based gags, and only developed into story arcs later. When I decided to take them in this direction, I invented situations and plot elements that would lead to humour, without referring back to actual events in the original games. I suppose I could have based the story arcs in the comics on the original game adventures... I think the main reason I never did is because that would be too constraining. It was easier to go off on a completely separate story arc that I could invent as needed, without trying to copy a pre-existing story.

But the characters are very similar to their gaming counterparts. I find this helps me to write the strips, because I have a strong gut feel for what motivates each character and how they would behave in different situations, based on my experiences playing the games with my friends. So the characters have ported very easily to the comics. Given that depth of characterisation innate to their existence, I believe they perform better and more consistently as comic characters than some of the examples of wholly original characters that I developed within the comic alone. They entered the comic much more fully developed and have probably undergone less character evolution than some others. (One example I can think of is Professor Jones in the Cliffhangers theme, who only acquired his distinctive love of food well into the story.)

To write a character, it pays to know the character. When portraying a character, some actors use the technique of method acting, getting into the mindset and mannerisms of the character, almost becoming the character. When writing the Fantasy and Space themes, I often use a similar approach, getting into the mindset of the characters, to figure out what they would do. This is even more the case in Darths & Droids, which I write with a group of my friends. During writing sessions, we are constantly asking each other, "What would Pete say?" or "What would Sally do?" to inspire dialogue, and also checking that dialogue we've written matches our expectations of the characters.

Bringing this all together, Darths & Droids is a story about a roleplaying game. So the writing techniques discussed above have to be merged to create a blend that both reads coherently as a story, while also being plausible as the product of people playing a game. This creates an interesting tension, and one we are always striving to balance. We have two types of characters in our story: the players who interact with one another at a "real world" level, and the NPCs in the game who they interact with at the "game level".

We have written detailed backgrounds and motivations and plans for the in-game NPCs, which then become the foils against which the players act. Determining what an NPC character in the game does is based on the plotting of the Star Wars films which we follow, but also on their scripted plans. So they are developed essentially like game NPCs, to be reactive scenery or obstacles, ready for the players to interact with.

On the other hand, we have detailed notes on the personalities of the players, what's going on in their real lives, and how they relate to one another. Determining what they do is much more a case of getting inside their heads in the method acting sense and asking ourselves what "would this person do in this situation?", as described above. We wanted some interesting dynamics, so there are conflicts and personality clashes in the group, but we didn't want to make it a bad game experience with people not having fun, so the conflicts are not all-consuming, and at the highest level they all actually enjoy getting together to play the game. The major conflicts in a story-telling sense actually arise at the in-game level, with various NPCs as antagonists and villains.

In summary, writing comics or other linear stories shares some things in common with writing RPG adventures, while differing in other aspects. The greatest similarity in my experience is that characters need to be fleshed out. You need to know what their personalities are and what drives them, so that readers or RPG players can relate to them. The greatest difference is that a story has to be carefully plotted, and then presented in a sequence that reveals things to the reader to build drama (or humour); whereas an RPG adventure benefits from less plotting. Instead, the RPG adventure writer needs to concentrate on locations and events, setting the scenery for the players to interact with. There can be a plot in the background - whatever it is that the adversaries are up to - but it's up to the players to discover it and interfere with it.

I guess if there's a piece of advice here for all writers, it's this: Make your characters detailed and believable!

Note: This annotation was inspired by reader Tommi H., who requested an essay on the differences and similarities between writing comics and RPG adventures as part of his Patreon supporter reward. If you'd like me to write an extended annotation on any topic you care to name, or if you just want to show some support for the comics and other creative work I share, please consider becoming a patron.
[1] Another three adventures I wrote were published in Steve Jackson Games' Pyramid magazine in its second incarnation as a weekly online web-zine, but I'm not sure if or how they can be accessed for reading. Getting a current subscription to the magazine used to include full archive access, but I'm not sure if that's still the case now that it's moved to its third incarnation as a monthly PDF magazine. The adventures are (links are to previews of the first few paragraphs):

[2] Oh, and for good measure, another Pyramid article I wrote also involves RPG rules about cartoon characters: TransToony Space.

[3] More like as sharp as a bowling ball.

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