Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Pairing it Down: Unification Day

     Welcome one and all, new and old! This week’s theme here at the Flying Pincushion is Firefly. Joss Whedon, you have my heart with this show. Can I say something that might not be taken well? I feel like I can trust you, the readers. I think Buffy is better off where it is, in the past. I had such fond memories of that show until I tried to start re-watching it.

     Firefly, on the other hand, is probably Whedon’s best series show. A rich universe, plenty of history, and most importantly, his characters feel like people.

     I wrestled with what to write about for this week’s Pairing it Down even before I wrote last week’s piece on Gilgamesh. Firefly is a show that has fans with a dedication bordering on fanaticism (myself included). Nathan Fillion (Mal), Alan Tudyk (Wash), Adam Baldwin (Jayne), Gina Torres (Zoe), Morena Baccarin (Inara), Jewel Staite (Kaylee), Sean Maher (Simon Tam), Summer Glau (River Tam), and Ron Glass (Shepherd Book) all make for a primary cast of amazing characters. The interactions, the sotto-voice mutterings, the love, and the dysfunctions that make us feel like it could be our family on the screen, these are paramount to what makes this so deserving of our loyalty. These same qualities are readily apparent in all the extemporaneous characters too. There isn’t really ever a sense of a “red shirt” in this show.

     Let me give my favorite example of character building and back story from this show. It comes from the second (what was supposed to be the second) episode; The Train Job. It starts out in a bar, as so many of our adventures do, with Jayne, Zoe, and the good old captain drinking at a table. A man obnoxiously calls for attention and gives a toast to the Alliance and Unification Day. We see an inkling of what Mal’s past means when Nathan Fillion gives one of his trademark looks and walks over to the counter. He orders in what I believe is Mandarin Chinese, another point I’ll make later, in his distinctly brown coat. He seems to innocently do this right next to the obnoxious Alliance lover. Some misdirection through the use of goading happens and Zoe is right there giving a mean punch with the butt of her gun to the man. The rest of the bar stands up slowly to fight, Mal and Zoe look to Jayne, who gives one of the best insights into his motivations as a character when he says “I didn’t fight in no war. Best of luck, though.” and rests his boots on the table.

     All of that happens in the second chronological episode. We see that Mal and Zoe, while having been on the losing side of a war, still believe in what they were fighting for in the past. Shortly after that, they have a great scene with Wash coming to rescue them from the edge of a cliff with a transport ship and a phenomenal bluff about having any firepower whatsoever. Then a wonderful family moment happens when they get to the interior and Kaylee asks about a fight, Simon worriedly asks about the Alliance, and Mal just says “An honest fight between folk.”

     Character and a character are very important distinctions in any game. You can have any number of characters, but if they don’t have any character then the game will feel lifeless and dull. This falls onto both sides of the DM screen. The DM is responsible for an entire world full of characters that have to have character when the spotlight is on them. When you stop and think about how many NPCs and monsters you meet in an average session then you realize that is a lot. The players are responsible for their characters to have character as well. That may seem unfair to the DM, but the players are responsible for developing a back story and motivations that are revealed over a long period. I would say that 99% of a DM’s characters are once and done; the players are the protagonists and thusly have to make their characters just as interesting on the last session as they were in the first. Maybe that involves speaking another language comfortably and intermixed with whatever passes for the common tongue.

     That’s a quick little sidebar I’d like to point out that goes along with last week’s world building Pairing it Down. Decide if there is a common tongue and then give it some flavor by building a history that says another language got absorbed into it and became mixed in to create this common tongue. Mandarin interspersed with English makes for a wonderfully evocative sense of the future.

     In the gaming industry there is something called a “plot hook”. These are devices that are intentionally left general enough that the DM can grab onto those hooks and make any number of adventures/exchanges/etc. off of just that one bit of information. The Pathfinder iconic monk Sajan is looking for his sister. Captain Ahab is looking for Moby Dick. Mal is looking for freedom. Decide first what your character is looking for in life. It doesn’t have to be grand, but it certainly can be grand. Start small though. You’d be surprised at what kind of stories and plot hooks come from simple and slightly general back stories. Resist the temptation to build a 10 page essay about the search for your sister; instead give a quick recap and leave it at the last place you heard she was seen. Maybe you are simply looking for the next something to steal (not that you are planning to steal the Mona Lisa). Perhaps you are looking to travel so you can find the next place to help, not that you are looking to go help Sister Sarah’s church.

     That’s what I’m pairing down this week. My character’s back story and then realizing when I’ve paired it down enough. If you read your character’s back story and realize that character is doing something specific in a specific location then try to back up a level. They can do something specific but omit the specific location bit. I challenge anyone brave enough to give me a short yet plot-ful back story in the comments. Until next time, when I look for inspiration from Last of the Mohicans, you can’t take the sky from me.

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