Tuesday, March 19, 2019

My own experiences at gardening

This post comes out of a new series of writing I do on ASOIAF meta and other topics of popular culture over at the Patreon of the Boiled Leather Audio Hour. If you like to read stuff like this, chime in just 1$ and you get access to everything I write. If you throw in 2$, you even get access to mini-podcasts I'm doing with Sean T. Collins answering questions by listeners of the podcast. Give the Patreon a look!

George R. R. Martin is famous for coining the terms "gardener" and "architect" to designate different approaches to storytelling (and also in some corners for the obscure fantasy saga "A Song of Ice and Fire"). I think these terms are just brillant, and rightfully reserve Martin the place in the pantheon of literature analysists that he has.

Quipping aside, to recap, an "architect" is someone who plans out every detail of their story in advance, before they put their first word on the page. J. Michael Straczynski, the creator of the SciFi TV series "Babylon 5", is such a person, constructing an elaborate plot before filming five seasons, always knowing that it would be five seasons. A "gardener", on the other hand, is someone who starts off with with a rough idea but lets their story grow in the telling. A rather extreme example of this is are Ron Moore and David Eick, the creators of the SciFi TV series "Battlestar Galactica", who made shit up as they went along even during filming, and creating a marvelously coherent picture, all things considered.

I myself am not an author. I'm not good at creating fiction (my first and last foray into this field was a novel I wrote between the ages of 17 and 19, and while it certainly is a novel, it's not good). I'm much better at critiquing fiction, which is why I'm in this business. That's because I educated myself on the structure of story and storytelling, and am still doing so in order to get better at it.

However, and that finally leads into the point of this article, I still create stories; I just don't write fiction. The stories that I create are adventures and campaigns for tabletop RPG, where I'm a GM and have the advantage that the main characters are taken care of by someone else and no one expects me to provide terribly well written things; the main thing here is that the structure works. In the last years, I learned quite a lot of how to be a better GM, but that's stuff for another article, in another time. What I want to describe here is something else.

Our roleplaying group changes the office of GM every few years. Me and my best friend are taking turns, developing a new campaign while the other is playing and vice versa. Since 2013, I'm GMing the current campaign, and my plan is to wrap it up around the end of 2020. After this, my friend will take over, and I will play a character in his shiny new campaign.

He's anxiously counting down the days with a sense of foreboding, because he's an architect. He needs to have the whole campaign, which will also take several years to play, planned out before. Every adventure, every encounter, every scene. And he has a plan to finish all of this before I am done. He's an architect, you see.

I'm a gardener. I have to GM next week and I still only have a very rough idea of what exactly will happen. I will have a plan when we play - I'm not as mad as Ron Moore and David Eick - but it will likely finish the day before. I'm still waiting for the muse to kiss me. What I already did, though, is to plant seeds. And that, finally, brings us to our topic.

When I started the campaign in earnest (after an introductory adventure to see whether the basic premise held) was to write an outline, two pages, of the complete story. I divided the outline in five acts, which are themselves divided into chapters. Those chapters consist of three parts each. These are just rough guidelines that help me plan finales, cliffhangers and the like.

Each act has its own leitmotif and is presenting a closed story, continually expanding the scope of the story. This means that I know where I want to end up - the emotion, the element, not the precise scene - but not really how to go there. I outlined some major stepping stones, sure, but I didn't plan everything out. That allows me to react to what the players are doing, but really, the most important advantage is that I can procrastinate until the day before the session. Deadlines, your best friends they are, as Yoda said.

But knowing the rough outline allows me to seed things for later use, even if I don't know how to use it later. And I believe this is what Martin did in many instances. To give you an example from this campaign, before I complete the circle to ASOIAF: we play in the past of the fantasy setting that the RPG (The Dark Eye) is usually set in, so it's basically the Roman Empire, but with orcs, elves and magic. My endpoint is that I want to introduce feudalism and the first knights, so there is a connection to the world we usually play in. That will be the finale of the final act, and I know that before, the current system needs to go bancrupt (which, given that it's Rome, is a landed gentry).
You can't just say this shit, of course, because showing always beats telling. So back in act three, when the characters were battling elves (in a giant misunderstanding that would have grave consequences), I introduced the minor character of a rich landed noble. He's the ideal patriarch, basically a cross of Ned Stark and Cato the Younger, spouting all the ideals and having the perfect little farm. He was all hands-on, responsibility to protect the smallfolk, etc.

In act four, when a dark power gained control over the settlement and tempted everyone, he was the one to stand firm and provide a safe haven, taking even more responsibility for the people relying on him for protection (see where this is going?), and in the upcoming act five (spoiler alert for my players), he's going to be one of the first knights, defending his land in return of contributions in kind from his smallfolk while the political infrastructure of the old Empire crumbles during the onslaught of the hordes.

I seeded this guy with the intention to use him as a showcase for this leitmotif, but without any clear sense of purpose. In the meantime, I used him for a number of sidequests as well (such as a ghost story, where his ancestor comes and reveals a dark secret about him), but I didn't plan out any details. I still don't even really know what the general strategy of the orcs will be, only that they will invade and utterly wreck the legions, making the invention of heroic knights a necessity.

Likewise, I seeded a Melisandre-like helping character, an elf that turned rogue on his race to assist the humans, in act four. Of course, he's got his own agenda (surprise!), but I had no clue what this agenda was until I thought about what the dark curse taking over the settlement in act four would be (which of course I also hadn't determined in advance). As it played out, one of the player characters decided to get a bit too intimate with a dark god, and so I made a pact with the player that his character would become an uber-powerful nemesis, turning into the arch-enemy, and ultimately be defeated at the end of act four. My rogue elf was a great misdirection: all seeds pointed to him being the next baddy, but when the players confronted him, they learned that the true enemy had been in their midst all along. This worked fine because the seeds were always there and could be harvested at random - or left at the plant, so to speak, hanging there, dazzling.

So where does this lead in ASOIAF? Early in AGOT, Martin seeded Tyrion's big tumbling abilities and his surprising fighting capabilities, but both would quickly recede (the fighting came up again in ACOK, in a fashion, but the tumbling was awkwardly reintroduced in ADWD). These are examples of seeds not used as originally intended, but still there to be capitalized later on. Dareon, the Night's Watch singer, on the other hand, is seeded in AGOT as well, but will only become relevant for Sam's Braavosi storyline in AFFC. Did Martin intend for this in 1996? Likely not, but he planted the seeds to use the character if he needed him. Rast, on the other hand, was seeded but never used. There was no need of a bully for Jon to stand up to beyond his fourth chapter, and so Rast slipped in the background, to become an also-ran.

The advantage of this style is that it allows you great flexibility, but the disadvantage is that you are locking yourself in at times, especially the farther you progress in your story. It's no random happenstance that Martin was much quicker with his first three books than with the following three, since so many butterfly effects had to be taken into account. That's why I made the deliberate choice to make the five acts largely self-contained, and it's also the reason why I'm not a great writer. Everything has consequences, I guess.

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