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castle  in the mist

In order to avoid misunderstanding, let me say from the outset that when I use the term "real magic" in this or any other column, I'm not speaking of "real" in our primary world, but in a secondary creation--magic that feels "real" enough to allow us to suspend our disbelief in it during the time we spend in the world the author has created.]

Even for writers, there's nothing wrong with role-playing games in themselves. But when they're the only fantasy a person "reads," there are two important elements of fantasy fiction he or she isn't likely to encounter regularly: real plotting and real magic. Many magazines that publish fantasy fiction include in their writers' guidelines a statement something like, "No stories written from RPG scripts." Yes, editors can recognize them, and apparently they're getting tired of returning them to their authors.

Before I raise anyone's hackles (or is it too late?), let me say that RPG's can be a perfectly wonderful source for fictional raw material. An interesting use of magic, an intriguing character, a fully-imagined world, are all things that can be transported from an RPG to a story (this is assuming, of course, that it's the type of RPG in which the gamer--rather than the game's copyright holder--develops these elements). But the author still needs to write the story in which those elements are used. In order to do that, the author needs to understand what makes a story a story, which means being an avid reader and not just a gamer. More than one RPG player has told me that people who read a lot of fantasy make the best game masters, and I don't think this is a coincidence. In this column, by pointing out some common pitfalls involved in changing RPG scripts into stories, we'll try to understand what an author can do to use ideas from a script in a written work that editors will recognize as a story.

The reason for a lack of real plotting in RPG scripts is easy to see. In an RPG, events follow events to form a story line--but a story line is not a plot. A plot has to be constructed by the author from the beginning, so each event not only follows the one before it but develops from it. In a well-constructed plot, to remove one step would affect the entire thing. Perhaps ironically, the real lives we live operate more like story lines than plots; many events that are totally unrelated follow on each other's heels. But in fiction, those extraneous elements are, in effect, "edited out," much as fictional dialogue "edits out" the majority of the well's and um's and uh's of real-life conversation. ("Slice of life" stories, generally found in literary fiction, operate under different principles in regard to story lines.) An extremely capable game master might be able to pull off a real plot within the confines of a game, but it's simply not what RPG's are designed for.

Another common cause of plotting difficulty in using game scripts as stories is that often the "sides" are morally evenly-matched. It may be considered old-fashioned in other literary genera, but in traditional fantasy "good vs. evil" is still something the author needs to address--whether because of its presence or its absence. If the only reason the author wants one side to win is because it's his side (or hers), that's not going to give the reader much to care about. There are various ways to remedy this, including redoing the story's concept so that there is a moral difference between the sides, or so that one side is in more desperate need of attaining the goal (Will the treasure come into the hands of the already-rich young lord, or those of the peasant boy who needs it to save his family from starvation? The young lord isn't evil, but you may want the reader to root for the peasant boy, anyway--or, for some reason, maybe not!).

A very different way of dealing with the moral equality issue is used in dark fantasy stories in which there really are no "good guys." All parties in the story are, at best, morally ambiguous and, at worst, definitely evil. How the author handles this depends on the view of human nature he or she wants to portray: is it hopeful (even imperfect people stumble through life the best they can), hopeless (evil will always win because, deep down, that's what all people are), or somewhere in-between? Does the author want the reader to be horrified by all sides, or to empathize with at least one of them? A basic fact of fiction writing is that even villains have motives; an irrational villain's motives may be patently irrational, but to the character they make perfect sense. One way to encourage readers to "feel for" someone who's not necessarily fighting for goodness and truth is to let them in on that character's motives for acting the way he or she does. One way Roger Zelasny accomplishes this in his Amber Chronicles is by using first person POV. Even though the person telling the story might not be "better" than his opponents, the reader is brought close enough to the character to understand why he's acting the way he is. To paraphrase a historical politician, "He may be an SOB, but he's our SOB."

The lack of real magic (see first paragraph) is even more inherent in RPG's than is lack of real plotting. Because of the very nature of a game, RPG magic has to have observable rules, delineated boundaries, and certain circumstances of use. In other words, it has to be defined in a way that all players understand, so the game can be played fairly.

But "real" magic doesn't pay attention to such boundaries and definitions. It's beyond what even the person wielding it can completely understand, much less entirely control. Real magic plays fair, but by its rules--which characters in the story might not even know. As with all other aspects of a fantasy world, the magic has to be consistent, but that consistency is found within the magic itself, not imposed from the outside. The author needs to be inside as the creator of the magic, deciding its internal rules so they don't contradict themselves. But, we might say, the author doesn't have to tell all the rules to the characters. They can be kept in the dark as much as the author wants regarding how magic works--or why, sometimes, it doesn't work. How much particular characters understand (or think they understand) will be important to the course of the story. A real-world parallel might be what scientists are now learning about genetics. Centuries ago, no one understood how DNA worked, or even knew that it existed--but it was there, operating according to its own internal rules even though no one "outside" knew what they were (Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker sometimes uses these rules--without understanding them--in his magic).

The author also needs to decide if he or she wants to keep the reader as much in the dark as the people in the story, or to give the reader some knowledge the characters don't have. We might compare this to the difference between a suspense movie in which the viewer sees everything from the intended victim's point of view and so shares in that character's surprises and shocks, and one in which the viewer knows what the villain is planning and wants to shout, "No! Don't do it!" when the intended victim steps into a vulnerable situation. If using a certain type of magic is going to exact a terrible price from the character who uses it, do you want the character to be aware of that going in? If not, do you want the reader to know about it and mentally shout at the character, "No! Don't do it!"? (I can't understand why, every single time I read "At the Sign of the Prancing Pony," Mr. Underhill gets back up on that table and puts his hand into his pocket. You'd think he'd have learned by now--I've warned him dozens of times!)

And speaking of Mr. Underhill and that Ring in his pocket, in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, JRRT notes that a character placing his or her magical power into an outside object is a common mythic device. I think one reason for this is that it's a tangible way to show that the character is not in complete control of that magic. Sauron has some control over the Ring; it probably did "hitch a ride" with Bilbo in an effort to return to its Master, as he had created it to. But Sauron was not in complete control; he certainly didn't choose to have it end up in the hands (or pockets) of an unknown breed of deceptively small creatures who are tenaciously resistant to its power (i.e., to his power contained in it). As Gandalf tells Frodo, "There was more than one power at work..." The forces in play in your story--and how they interact--will be different from Tolkien's, and it's up to you to decide how much, or how little, control each one has over any situation, and even over its own power.

A recently-published series that (in my opinion) has an identifiably "real" system of magic is the four-book Fortress series by C. J. Cherryh. In this world, wizardry and magic are not the same thing. Wizardry is governed somewhat by talent, but it also takes years of study because it involves manipulation of probabilities. The more a wizard knows about astrology, weather, plants and animals, human nature, and any other relevant parts of creation, the more likely he is to be able to "tilt the table" toward the possibility/probability that he favors. Magic, on the other hand, is an innate power certain people possess simply because of who they are. What they need to learn is how to weigh the possible/probable side-effects and after-effects of the events they want to influence with their magic; the hard lesson is that sometimes their interference can end up causing the opposite of what they intended.

Both magic and wizardry (and sorcery, which is the dark side of wizardry) can meet and interact in what is called the "gray space." Although the gray space seems to have no physical location itself, what happens within it--especially when powers battle each other there--can greatly affect what happens in the world outside. How wizardry and magic can interact there, even though they are two different kinds of power, isn't spelled out by the author. Even more intriguing and unusual, authentically spiritual people (as opposed to those who use religion for politics or profit) can also enter the gray space. Cherryh doesn't tell the reader how or why this "meeting place" works for these distinct types of people, but she uses it so consistently that, while I'm in her world, I can believe that she knows the rules of it and just hasn't told me what they are.

There was only one element of the magical system used in the Fortress series that pulled me out of my willing suspension of disbelief. Toward the end of the series, the gray space becomes used as an almost science-fictional transport device. This took me out of the story for two reasons: first, this capability of the gray space hadn't been "set up" in the story beforehand, or integrated with the other uses of the space; second, the several "terminals" of the "transport device" were a bit too conveniently located, seeming to be placed at exactly the locations the characters needed to get to and from quickly (and nowhere else that I noticed). Both of these reasons caused the same problem for me as a reader: they made the use of magic feel inconsistent, as if the magic's internal rules had somehow changed.

When using elements of an RPG script in a story, remember that the reader trusts you, as the author, to provide a coherent plot and a world that's consistently believable even in its magical system. If you provide those elements to the reader--therefore, first of all, to the editor--you're less likely to receive a form letter saying, "Sorry. We don't publish stories written from RPG scripts."


Copyright 2001 by Trudy G. Shaw

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