Friday, February 11, 2022

Adventure Writing Tips feat: Unicorn Meat

So over on twitter (some time ago, because I am slow), Layla (@pandatheist) expressed some sadness over how much adventure design gets lost over time, thanks to the general entropy of internet hobbyist spaces. Since I have a vested interest in spreading good design guides wherever I can, have an adventure soon to be released to the masses, and in another timeline would have spent my life happily getting hand cramps in some monastery scriptorium, I feel it's only fair to do my part.

For each step, just to show that I'm not talking out of my ass, I'll be providing an example of how it was used in Unicorn Meat. (Don't worry, I shan't be giving away all my secrets.) 


First, Some Archaeology

This part isn't mine, it's a summary of a now long-gone tumblr post by Rebecca Chenier (author of Blood in the Chocolate), that I luckily wrote down when I had the chance (thereby proving the importance of Layla's original thesis). I've adapted it from my notes so it doesn't match exactly, but it covers the same points. 


Rebecca's Four Core Components

  • Time - The outside context surrounding the adventure and informing what is going on within it.
  • Adversary - A character / group / force that stands in opposition to the players.
  • Place - The specific location where the players come into conflict with the Adversary.
  • Fantastic element - What it says on the tin.

I find that this sort of setup emerges naturally, for me at least, just by piecing things together. But it remains a helpful reminder that the adventure is a series of moving parts in a greater machine, and all of them are interconnected. The antagonist is motivated by the times they find themselves in. The place is in its current state both by the adversary's actions and the times. The fantastic elements have their fingers in everything.

So, for example, in Unicorn Meat.

  • Time - The old aristocracy was overthrown ~50 years prior to the point of play. The farm was re-opened ~20 years ago. The adults vanished 8 months ago.
  • Adversary - White-Eyes, charismatic leader of the Bucha gang and now de facto leader of the farm. She's cunning, charismatic, and has already given the players ample reason to hate her (as the Buchas are, by and large, a bunch of violent bullies and have no doubt visited some kind of violence on the PCs and their friends).
  • Place - The Backwoods have always been intended as the place that gives off this vibe of "people never should have come here." They're inherently inimical to human habitation and they've been getting worse
  • Fantastic element - The unicorns themselves.

And then when tied together:

  • The Backwoods have become spiritually polluted thanks to the mass killings of the unicorns (place + fantastic)
  • The disappearence of the adults allowed White-Eyes and her gang to gain complete control of the farm (time + adversary)
  • The power vacuum after the revolution and the physical isolation of the Backwoods allowed the current operators to both re-open it and to do so in secret (time + place)
  • White-Eyes is ordering the continued hunt of unicorns towards unknown ends (adversary + fantastic)

And so on and so forth. You can very easily get a very potent nugget of conflict out of recombining those four points.

That out of the way, on with the show.


But what the Fuck Do You Do?

Give players a reason to be at the location and get involved in the conflict there. This will vary. Use "you have a personal enemy here" if you have to, and have everyone list off how this antagonist has wronged them. "Escape the danger" is also a very easy motivation. Remember MICE - Money, Ideology, Coercion, Ego.

In Unicorn Meat, the main options are "You have a personal enemy here, also escape the danger." (I did say they were useful!) or "oh fuck we need to find some way to get these kids out of here." Both of them involve finding the key that turns off the containment field, currently in White-Eye's possession. The what and the why are nice and set up. 


Steal Everything, Recycle Everything, Remix Everything

You have doubtlessly accumulated a very fine slush pile of unused concepts, striking images, memorable NPCs, and favorite mechanics. Use them liberally and with minimal constraint. Form a pool of ready-to-deploy material and deploy the hell out of it at a moment's notice.

When running adventures, this is a necessary skill to keep things flowing in times when you need improvisation. When designing adventures, this is just the handiest way to fill in blank spots and get yourself unstuck. Plucking something out of one setting and changing it so that it fits in another context is a useful creative exercise.

In Unicorn Meat this typically emerges in small, offhand bits that most people won't get. There's a poster for a movie starring the farm's mascot, Noodle (who is based on a hand-puppet of The Lawful Neutral's) titled "Fuck the King of Space" (a campaign run by Nick Whelan). More substantially, the toxicity mechanic from eating the meat itself is pulled from a very old post of mine about health potions. 


The PCs are intruding on a pre-existing conflict

This one is pretty straightforward. A good adventure presents the players with something to do, and there's a lot of things to do when other parties are already doing things. Makes factions and NPCs easy to fill out, because they already have begun acting on their wants and towards their goals.

Or, more directly: Things are going on in the background whether or not the players know about it.

In Unicorn Meat, the farm is right at the cusp of violence between the Buchas and the Church. With White-Eyes in isolation from the rest of the farm, the Buchas are splitting between those who are sticking with White-Eyes, and those who are more in favor of second-in-command Greythorn. The leader of the Nightwatch is missing entirely. Everything is just about to break apart.


Detail! Detail! Detail!

You are working within limited space, so make those words count. Paint me a picture, use those sense words, use creative references as shortcuts. One of my personal favorites is describing something in a way that the thing in question is not typically described as, ex Douglas Adams' "The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't." 


Stick to What Can Be Observed

This principle was my workhorse during the SCP days and it has dutifully served me ever since.

Focus your writing on what the characters (or in this case, the players) can directly observe. Save omniscient narration for DM summaries, so that they have a working context of what is going on behind the scenes and why. Keep those bits brief and relevant to the action at hand (Rebecca's four points return!). You're working in limited space anyway.

This method will leave the readers/players with questions and evidence, which they can assemble at their leisure. This is the bonus material, the a-ha moment. Some folks will ignore it all and just go for the superficial read, but people who dig into it more will be rewarded AND referees have the information to actually flesh out these mysteries. It's mystery box avoidance.

An example in Unicorn Meat: there's a certain NPC who has a prominent shelf full of sci-fi paperbacks. Can't miss 'em if you talk to her. Since she is the only person on the farm who is associated with them, if the players happen to find a sci-fi paperback lying around elsewhere, they can connect the dots and know that the NPC was there. It's very simple environmental storytelling, but it can cover a lot of ground other adventures would need clunky box text to exposit.


Resource Management Can Be Fun

But! It is only fun if there is a meaningful choice to be made on how you spend the resource. If it only has one effect, it's less fun and more liable to be handwaved (note: I generally hate resource bean counting)

In Unicorn Meat this comes primarily in the form of the MEAT ECONOMY. If you want to buy things - food, tools, ammo, special items, bribes - you need to hunt unicorns. But all of the parts harvested from a unicorn have secondary uses besides as a barter good: meat is your primary means of health and magic restoration. Milk does the same, but is flammable. Bones and hides can be crafted into better armor and weapons. Their shit can be smoked as a hallucinogen.

The same principle can apply to mundane items, too, ammo being my favorite. You can either eat or end a fight quickly, choose wisely.

You Provide Tools, Players Will Provide Solutions

Just dump a bunch of stuff in there. Be generous with gifts. You don't need to have an intended use. Folks will figure something out.


It's Okay if Players Don't See Something

This is more or less part 2 of the above point, distributing the cool tools in such a way that their discovery feels organic. Use that environmental storytelling from earlier to your advantage here - drop an important tool somewhere, sprinkle some clues where players can see, and eventually they will tug on those strings. Add a couple that have no clues at all, but if folks are lucky they can stumble on a game-changer.

In Unicorn Meat this most often takes the form of certain encounters or items that can really turn the tide in your favor. Some of them are by chance, some can be puzzled out, some will be difficult to get your hands on


Consider the Aftermath

Deep Carbon Observatory had a section in the back describing events that would happen if the players did nothing. I adore that little section and keep it in the forefront of my mind when designing. I keep major variables that players are likely to interact with in mind - the deaths of important monsters or characters, shifts of factional power, special items recovered or world-states achieved, and so on. You don't have to cover every single possible outcome, but a page or two really does help, even if its a one shot.


In Summation

It only takes a few major elements and some connective tissue before it starts writing itself.

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Fullmetal Alchemist Rewatch Post

As with my prior revist posts (Avatar, Lord of the Rings, Cowboy Bebop), this is disorganized and has no thesis. Spoilers everywhere, naturally. Unlike those prior ones, though, I don't have notes and there's been several months (by this point, nearly a year) of downtime since the viewing. Shoulda been more on the ball, but so it goes.


Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood was another formative work for me (as these revisits seem to be trending towards). Right time, right place. Watched it as it aired in 2009-2010 (which, if we are paying attention to timelines, came right after Avatar wrapped up), read the first couple volumes of the manga at the library, and didn't get around to watching the 2003 anime until last year, after finishing my most recent (fourth) Brotherhood rewatch.

Going forward, when I say FMA that is in reference to Brotherhood or elements shared between the two. Presume that as the default. If it's specific to the 2003 adaptation, I'll call it 2003.


God this show still looks so fucking good.


Lots of anime have the "did you get to that part" shibboleth, and against all odds FMA does it twice. And while I know I said there would be spoilers up top it still feels unfair to say precisely what they are, just in case someone has managed to miss nearly 20 years of spoilers.

And if you know, you know. Critically, there's not a whole lot to say. It speaks very well for itself.


Anime often has this thing of having a phrase that keeps getting repeated but it's just clunky enough in translation that the meaning takes entirely too long to sink in. Or perhaps I am just thickheaded and was not being an active viewer at the time, because it took me until now to actually realize what is going on with the taboo on human transmutation. What it is actually saying is "a purely transactional worldview will only lead to continual horrors visited upon humanity" and yeah, yeah that's pretty on point.


FMA is a poster child for the cathartic benefits of melodrama. Sometimes you feel big emotions and want to have a solid cry and/or scream about it, and this series is all about big emotions with attendant crying and/or screaming. Many tears have been shed.


I very much appreciate that the cast of FMA generally look like actual people. And unique ones, too; you can easily identify even incidental characters. I remember what Sheska's coworker looks like and she shows up in maybe 30 seconds of one episode.


Another soundtrack that's been burned into my brain. Can't pick a top song, they're all great.

This is a lie; best songs are One is All, All is One, Knives and Shadows, The Fullmetal Alchemist, The Intrepid, OPs 1, 2 and 4, ED 1 and 4.

That is also a lie; The actual best song is Amestris Military March.


I do wish we could have seen a bit more of the other state alchemists. I understand why we didn't, but I'd like at least a little throwaway line of "they're all at the southern front" or something like that. We do get to see a bit of the everyday working-class alchemists, and that's nice.


FMA is actually one of my go-to mental references for D&D wizards. When you have someone who can set someone else on fire with their brain (and is willing to), whoever is in political power is going to want to get as many of those folks around them as they can. Regardless of how centralized power is, you can expect to see war-wizards as a standard, and the structures in place to create more of them.


Brotherhood's pacing in particular is worth some praise; it is steady as a long-distance runner (once the intial rush is done, I must admit), and I (notoriously bad at watching anything that isn't a video game for long periods of time) can easily do 5-6 episodes a night, every night. Got a weak first episode, though, not a fan.


Things That 2003 Did Well
  • The Philosopher's Stone is a crapshoot - all you'll do is murder hundreds or thousands of people for diminishing returns.
  • The final confrontation between Mustang and Bradley.
  • Homunculi as the end result of human transmutation.
  • Lust having a character.
  • Man they weren't fucking around when they were dealing with how Amestris treats Ishval. Writers who use subtext are all cowards indeed.
  • The little bit of extra time spent on Al wondering if he was programmed or not.
  • Mustang's flashbacks, holy shit (and as part of that, the fact that he killed the Rockbells).


Things that 2003 Did Not Do Well
  • Robo-Archer, what the actual hell.
  • Wrath's part in the story gets undermined by being an obnoxious screeching child, which is at least the third worst anime archetype.
  • The early filler episodes are generally pretty weak and anomalously of their time more than the rest of the show.
  • The plot kinda limps across the finish line.
  • Sloth is just kinda eh. I mean so is the Brotherhood version so at least its consistent.
  • Not a big fan of what they did with Kimblee. I mean he's still a monster either way, but the loss of the dapperness is too far.


It has been noted before by many other people that Lust is the only homunculi who serves as the object of the sin rather than the subject. This works very well with her backstory in 2003, and next to not at all with hers in Brotherhood.


In case anyone has forgotten, on this blog we stan 2nd Lieutenant Maria Ross.


Winry's great. That's it, that's the point. Winry's just great.


Honestly let's just expand this to "I like everyone in the cast". Even the weird chimera guys towards the end who really feel like fifth wheels, they're fine. 2003 dropped the character ball in places but Brotherhood nails it. If I hate a character, I like hating them.


I like how the antagonists compliment each other: Father and Dante are both trying to cheat death, just with different methods. Dante has embraced the rot, clinging to her life despite the ever-diminishing returns of her stones. Father is hellbent on breaking out of the limitations of mortality entirely by going for the all-or-nothing option. Both options fitting for the overall themes of their respective series.


I feel like it was part and parcel for the era, but FMA leans very heavily on the comic-relief violence vs. real violence divide.


The one scene in 2003 with Scar's brother, when he walks out into the street naked but for the tattoos of the Grand Art, is one of the most effective moments of cosmic horror I've seen. That's the look of a man who has seen the truth and it is more terrible than anyone can imagine.


I love how Envy is just, beginning to end, a repulsive piece of shit without a single redeeming quality. They just like hurting people. No sob story, no glimmers of redemption arcs, just this absolute monster cackling with glee over the time he murdered a child and killed a guy while disguised as his wife. A wonderful change of pace of a genre beset by "we must understand this genocidal maniac's motivations because you see, they were sad once." None of that bullshit. Envy's just cruelty and spite and ultimately pathetic.


Ishval being destroyed in antiquity by a philosopher's stone transmutation in 2003 is better than Xerxes doing the same in Brotherhood. Fuckin' inexplicable blond haired white people in the middle of the fucking desert, what the fuck. Also we get the old Ishvalan man telling off Ed for presuming that they were just ignorant desert barbarians.

Hoenheim in 2003 is...strange. I was used to him being a rather integral part of the story, and then he comes along as just kinda a deadbeat with a degenerative brain condition. It's thematically appropriate for 2003, but I found it a lot less compelling on the whole. He just kinda shows up and putzes around.


I am forever amused by Arakawa's "Men should be buff! Women should be vavoom!" quote. She knows what the peorple want and by jove she will give the peorple what they want.


Olivier Armstrong definitely got kicked down a few notches on the character rankings on rewatch. "Ridiculing your brother as a coward for having a mental breakdown brought on by being forced to mass-murder civilians" is certainly a look, and I wish she got challenged more on that than not at all. Like holy shit. She is a very good example of how fandoms will twist themselves around to favor terrible people because they are quote unquote badass.


I love everything with Mustang's underlings and the counter-conspiracy. Especially when we get to the end and everything is tying together. When similar "heroes' cunning plan executed perfectly" moments show up in other media I will still call them an FMA moment (The sequels to Sabriel had a notable one)


I appreciate the chutzpah of the real world twist at the end of 2003, but it falls into the same issue I have with a lot of multiverse stories: when you introduce one alternate world, I immediately think "but what about all the others" and start fixating on that aspect. It's a me problem to be sure, but a problem nonetheless.


One of the bloopers for Brotherhood features Hoenheim shouting 'FUCK HIM UP!' during Ed's last fight with Father and I am devastated that they didn't include that. You can get 1 F-bomb and still be Pg-13 and that would have been the perfect place.


So they just let Ling go with a Philosopher's stone, right? I'm not misremembering that? That's kinda fucked.


It would be, all things considered, rather easy to do a live action FMA adaptation. Yes I know that there was one already and that it failed miserably, but hear me out.

Live-actions often fail because they are trying to capture the style of animation with living people, while ignoring the spirit. The style is nearly impossible to translate and so we end up with cosplay fights on a cheap sound stage.

If you're trying to adapt the exact mixture of melodrama or the exact plot it won't work, but if you stick to "~WW1 era elseworld with alchemy + war is hell + militarist autocrats are evil fucks + nothing is gained without loss + childhood trauma", you should be all good to go. That's the important stuff, the plot can be whatever. Get a director who can do a solid WW2 movie and you're halfway there.

Let's skip over Liore. We're not doing Liore, we're not dealing with the homunculi (we can deal with homunculi, and honestly I think we should, but not those homunculi.) Ed and Al return to central after another bust on looking for the stone. There are two routes we could go here: adapting the Tucker arc, or making something like it (another state alchemist working with incredibly shady shit, possibly with homunculi). Scar can be in the background. Potentially wrap in Lab 5 stuff. You can make a solid movie out of that.

Most difficult thing would be finding a child actor who can convincingly sell his leg being forcibly amputated.


Overall - I like many of 2003's themes and detail work a whole lot, in many places a touch more than Brotherhood's, but it's overall plotting and pacing is shaky at best; Brotherhood wins handily in the beat-to-beat plot category and has aged a lot better, if we were making this a contest. Which we shouldn't but does feel inevitable in the comparison.

This makes compositional fanfic nice and easy, as you can port the good stuff from 2003 into the good framework of Brotherhood without much trouble.