Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Origins Report (Part 1)

Last year at Origins, most of the sessions I went to seemed a bit... sponsored. As in, "Hi, I'm a representative from a boardgame publisher, and I'd like to tell you why you should use our games in your classroom. By the way, I have no experience in education, and I have no lesson plans, but don't let that stop you from buying lots of stuff."

This year was much improved. Publishers who were pushing their own agenda at least brought a good assortment of lesson plans and were presented by someone who'd been teaching for twenty years. Others, even if presented by someone who worked at a publisher, concentrated on practical content. And then there were the independents like me, just out to spread the word about whatever we had experience in.

Mark O'Bannon gave a primer on good storytelling practice. Since this was at a game convention, the subject was approached mostly from the perspective of "how to become a better GM by understanding what makes a good story", although the basic principles are the same whether you're writing a book, a screenplay, the plot of a video game or a tabletop RPG adventure. It occurs to me that "write a two-hour game session and then run it with fellow students in a group" would be an interesting assignment for a creative writing class.

The session was pretty basic, so there weren't many surprises for me: most of the content was taken from the holy trinity of Aristotle, Campbell and McKee. Two other books were mentioned as being useful in the context of game writing: "Characters and Viewpoint" by Orson Scott Card, and "How to Write Science Fiction" (someone said at the session this was written by Ben Bova, but a search through Amazon suggests this was Card also). I'll evaluate these later this Summer if I have time.

There were a couple gems in the session I hadn't encountered before:
  • When creating a setting, build what O'Bannon referred to as a "community of opposites": character rivalries, feuding factions, environmental hazards, etc. -- things that exist as sources of conflict in the setting itself.
  • On the subject of showing character, a useful way to think of this is to have two emotions fighting against each other. When one emotion wins, that's when you see a person's true character. (Example: pride vs. fear. Put a proud character in a dangerous situation and see whether they fight or flee.)
  • McKee especially talks a lot about how the main character should change during a story, but O'Bannon points out that this doesn't have to be the case; it's possible for the main character to be more of a catalyst, someone who causes change in all that he touches, without actually changing himself. An example would be Kwai Chang Caine.

This post is already getting pretty long, so I'll summarize the other sessions later.

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