Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Speculative Spotlight: Knights of Pen & Paper

Welcome to another installment of the Speculative Spotlight, in which I scour the multiverse for hefty chunks of speculative fiction awesomeness. This month, the spotlight falls on a charming mobile game called Knights of Pen & Paper.

What Is It?

Knights of Pen & Paper comes from Brazilian developer Behold Studios, and it's garnered a lot of attention for a small indie game in the crowded mobile space. Upon its release in October last year, the game found its way into the hands of the popular gaming press, earning a few prominent feature articles. From there word of mouth propelled it toward success and acclaim, earning a nomination for the "Student Showcase" award at the 2013 Independent Games Festival awards.

Essentially, Knights of Pen & Paper is a roleplaying game about playing roleplaying games. Rather than imagining that you're a mighty warrior saving the world, this game asks you to imagine that you're part of a group of tabletop gamers pretending they are mighty warriors saving the world. Very meta, yes? You control both the party and the dungeon master as the game progresses, and you get to watch as the humble living room they've gathered in comes to life around them, transforming to reflect the imaginary creatures and quests from their game, most of which are pulled straight out of the classic fantasy tropes at play in books and RPGs. If you're anything like me, you're already sold. If not, read on.

What's So Awesome About It?

This game is made of pure nostalgia. But unlike other retro games that aim to rekindle fond memories of your gaming past, Knights of Pen & Paper manages to hit you from two angles at once. It does a great job conveying the atmosphere of a group of friends nerding out around a tabletop, while also capturing the look and feel of a classic console RPG. At every turn, the game hits you with awesome chiptunes and pixel art straight out of the 8-bit era. If someone had showed me footage of this game and told me it was running on an old NES, I probably would have believed them. More than anything, the epic battles that you lead your party of adventurers through hark back to games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior.

Speaking of those battles, if you're an old-school RPG fan, the gameplay itself will hit your nostalgia buttons as well. The battle sequences are turn-based affairs, with your party gaining experience points as you progress through the game, allowing you to increase the attributes of each character as they level up and grow more powerful. There's a huge world map to explore, towns and castles to visit, multistage quests to follow, and item vendors to spend your loot on. In the middle of all this goodness, you also get surprisingly clever writing, with little nods to gamers and fantasy fans sprinkled throughout.

And while you're managing the armor and inventory of your party's characters, you can also upgrade various aspects of the "real world" side of the game. For instance, you can buy accessories and eye candy for your gaming table, or even a brand new table altogether. You can also keep your party members well fed with snacks and beverages. Don't like your dungeon master? Hire a new one that looks like Yoda! And these items aren't just ornamental; they come with all kinds of effects and buffers that will boost your dungeon-clearing abilities in the game.

As of right now, I'd say that Knights of Pen & Paper is easily my favorite mobile game. If it sounds like your cup of tea as well, you can grab it in the Apple app store for iOS devices or on Google Play for Android devices. If you're not a fan of playing games on your tablet or phone, don't worry. Behold Studios recently announced they're working on a "+1" edition of the game for Windows, Mac, and Linux that will be here soon.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Accepted to Odyssey Writing Workshop (and Seeking Guest Bloggers)

I'm delighted to share the news that I've been accepted to the 2013 Odyssey Writing Workshop. As you might imagine, this is a pretty big deal for me. Since I started writing seriously almost three years ago now, I've been committed to growth every step of the way, and the intensive experience that Odyssey offers is just what I need to take the next step on that journey. For six long weeks, I will be pulled out of my comfort zone and immersed in the craft, toiling with a small group of peers and learning the ropes from authors and editors that have walked the path ahead of us. I'm excited, to say the least.

There is a down side, however. Since I'm going to be out of town and swamped with work for six weeks starting in June (and spending most of the month leading up to it preparing), I'm not going to have the proper amount of time and energy to keep up with my blog. I toyed with the idea of pre-writing a bunch of entries to post while I'm away, but that's not really feasible either considering the amount of preparation I'd like to put in before the big day arrives. So as of just a couple of days ago, I was certain this would mean a long blog hiatus. But I'd really like to avoid having to do that, if I can.

You can help with that, if you're up for it.

Seeking Guest Bloggers

In an effort to avoid a blog hiatus, I'm opening up my blog to guest posts. I update the blog every Wednesday, and I'd like to stick to that schedule if I can, so I'll need at least six guest posts for the time I'll be away. As I said earlier though, I'll also be spending a lot of time on preparation work before I leave, so I'll gladly take more than six if enough people are interested. I don't know if I'll get that many, as I've never really opened the blog up like this before. But even if I don't get enough people to fill the amount of time I need, a short hiatus is better than a long one.

The only real requirement I have for a potential guest post is that the subject have something to do with writing or speculative fiction (this could mean books, movies, video games—anything related to science fiction, fantasy, or horror). If you can combine the two in some way, even better. Self-promotion is fine, as long as the work you're promoting is speculative fiction. I'd also be willing to let you write a piece for my Speculative Spotlight series, if that sounds like something you'd enjoy (please read a couple of them beforehand, so you know what I'd be expecting in that case).

If you're interested at all, shoot me an email at JWAlden[at]AuthorAlden[dot]com and let me know what you have in mind. And if guest blogging isn't your thing, but you know someone who might be interested, I'd very much appreciate it if you'd share this with them.

Any questions? Feel free to leave a comment.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Forging a Universe: Worldbuilding Physics

This is the second installment in a continuous series on worldbuilding for speculative fiction. Throughout the series, I'll be making my way through the primary elements we use to construct a universe. I'll attempt to keep things broad enough to apply to both sides of the sci-fi/fantasy coin, but some topics will undoubtedly lean more toward one genre than the other. I should also say before we get underway that most entries will assume the top-down method, primarily for the sake of ordering them in a coherent way. If you're not sure what I mean by that, check out my introductory post.

We're starting with what I consider the most basic step on the ladder of worldbuilding: defining the physics of your universe. This might seem like a small step, a simple precursor to the big decisions you'll be making down the road, but it's actually a very important one. Acknowledging how your setting will reconcile with real-world physics can dramatically alter the events that take place in your story, even if you're writing in a genre that comes with a high expectation that the reader will be willing to suspend disbelief at the door. In many ways, this decision can set the tone of your entire story.

Fantasy: Degrees of Magic

In a fantasy story, the question of physics is one that revolves around the amount of magical elements present in your story, since these elements don't generally adhere to the laws of our universe. Many fantasy stories present a world with the same basic physical properties as ours on the surface, whether it's set on an unnamed planet with a perpetually pseudo-medieval culture, or present-day New York. For the most part, it will be a world we recognize and can identify with. Then a wizard shows up, and all hell breaks loose. With a flick of his wand, a tilt of his staff, or a mutter under his breath, the laws of physics as we know them bend and break at his command. Depending on the style of magic employed by the author (something we'll get into in another entry down the road), there may not even be any explanation for how or why the magic does what it does; it just is. It's a force of nature all to itself, and can do whatever the author needs it to (within reason).

Of course, it's not just your sorcerers and mages that dictate how faithful you are to real-world science. It's also a good idea to keep physics in mind when populating the imaginative flora and fauna of your world. For instance, I love dragons . . . but the sad truth is that physics is not on their side. The enormous dragons we've seen soaring through the air in movies and books would never make it off the ground in the real world; their wings would be purely for decoration. The same goes for a ton of other fantastic creatures, from giant crustaceans to insect people. No matter how awesome and exciting they may be, they just don't measure up to a higher standard of realism. In physics, size matters.

Does this mean you can't have dragons in your story? Of course not! That's where suspension of disbelief comes in. But make sure this is a conscious decision on your part, because it will have a big effect on reader expectation. I don't think anyone wrote J.K. Rowling angry letters about snakes not having vocal chords in real life. But she undoubtedly knew the kind of signal she was sending when she put a talking animal in her book. She was saying to the reader, "This is the kind of story you're reading; don't act too surprised when people start flying around on broomsticks."

Science Fiction: Degrees of Hardness

For obvious reasons, physics is often a much more conscious element in a science fiction story, especially if there is space travel involved. There are exceptions, but for the most part, the standard of realism is going to be much higher in a science fiction story than in a fantasy story. For instance, if you have a story or setting that hinges on the existence of some kind of faster-than-light travel, you must address the problem of physics in some way, even if your way of addressing it is the equivalent of saying, "I'm not going to address this, so deal with it. Hyperspace."

Again, it largely has to do with reader expectation. In science fiction there is a "hardness scale" that determines how rigorous the author's application of real-world science has been. As the genre has grown and evolved over the years, a large, vocal camp has risen within science fiction fandom (especially literary SF) that seeks hard science and loves to criticize works that fling too much phlebotinum. This is why it's important to address how you will be handling physics in your story, and to make it clear to the reader. Much like J.K. Rowling's talking snake in our fantasy scenario above, it's important to send the proper signals. As a reader, I enjoy both soft SF and hard SF (as long as the physics lectures aren't too long), but even I get frustrated if everything is nice and plausible for most of the book, then the science takes an inexplicable left turn into crazy-town for the convenience of the author's limitations on research.

It should be noted that there are certain sub-genre conventions that come with their own set of expectations. If you're writing a space opera, chances are readers aren't going to take you to task for violating physics every time your pilot presses the big red button. In these kinds of stories, things like faster-than-light travel are expected, to the point where a novel idea of getting around the natural limitations involved will net you cool points, even if the idea itself involves breaking yet more laws. Most sci-fi fans are rad that way. Give them something really cool, and they won't yell at you about science.

Next month, the series continues as we take a look at the cosmology of your fictional universe.

photo credit: placbo via cc

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Magitech

Most science fiction fans are aware of Arthur C. Clarke's famous "third law," which states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Many writers apply this logic to the universes they craft, even those who build their stories on hard science. After all, if you were to present an iPhone to someone who lived a few hundred years ago, you would probably have an easier time telling them it was a magical artifact than trying to explain integrated circuits and liquid crystal displays. According to Doctor Who, however, the reverse can also be true. Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology. And who are we to argue with a Time Lord?

Indeed, speculative fiction is filled with examples of technology powered by magical means. From spaceborne shipyards powered by magical energy fields to cameras that house imps who literally paint pictures on demand. The name of this entry comes partially from one of my favorite video games of all time, Final Fantasy VI, which features an antagonistic empire that forcibly extracts the magical properties of beings called Espers and applies them to mechanized suits of battle armor. They call this process Magitek, the fusion of magic and technology.

As with most tropes, if you peer back far enough into the myths and legends that inspire much of our modern fiction, you can find the early seeds of magitech. For instance, you have the Greek deity Hephaestus, who was worshiped by blacksmiths and stoneworkers as the god of fire and craftsmanship. According to Greek mythology, he crafted many of the weapons and armor of the Olympians, which were almost always imbued with magical properties of some kind. He also built magical automatons out of metal that served him in his craft, including tripods that would travel to and from Mount Olympus at his beck and call.

Works of fantasy are the most obvious place to look for magitech artifacts these days. Many stories within this broad genre envision worlds in which the use of both magic and technology have progressed on an even plane, resulting in societies that use the forces of magic the same way we use electricity, or combustion.

The wizards of the Harry Potter universe tend to frown upon the use of "muggle" technology, using a magical equivalent instead, like self-writing quills that serve as word processors. In The Chamber of Secrets, however, we see an otherwise ordinary automobile enhanced with magical properties—most notably, the ability to fly.

Thus far, my own fantasy has yet to approach the use of magitech. My fantasy world is light on magic altogether, but when it does appear it stays firmly in the realm of the other, seldomly intersecting with that of the mundane. That being said, I'd love to play around with the concept one day. As someone who adores both science fiction and fantasy, the magitech trope can be an awesome opportunity to bring both realms together in interesting ways, depending how you play it.

And I think that gets to the heart of the appeal of tropes like this one. Magitech brings the real and the unreal within the same plane, at once making the forces of the supernatural and metaphysical far more relatable. Your traditional crystal ball or magic wand is still very capable as a plot element in the hands of a skilled writer, but let's face it: that stuff can also be pretty boring. It's been done. Give me a bazooka that shoots fire elementals instead, and you have my attention.

Recommended Reading:
Magic, Inc. by Robert A. Heinlein
The Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
The God Engines by John Scalzi

Recommended Viewing:
Harry Potter
The Avengers

Recommended Gaming:
Final Fantasy VI
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Lost Odyssey

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

IWSG: Star Wars and the General Public

It's the first Wednesday of March, which hails the regular arrival of the Insecure Writer's Support Group, hosted by Ninja Captain Alex J. Cavanaugh. The group offers a place for writers of all kinds to support each other in those ever-present moments of insecurity.

While many use this as an opportunity to vent their frustrations, I realized early on that if I keep posting about my own insecurities, these posts will start sounding very similar. So I decided to move away from "woe is me" and focus on motivation and encouragement, centering my IWSG posts on inspirational quotes from people I admire.

This month's quote comes from a man who needs no introduction. But since that sentence is almost always followed by just that, allow me. He's a filmmaker behind one of the most iconic and influential franchises in the history of speculative fiction. His work is so beloved that the very fans who deify him stand at the ready to crucify him whenever he makes the slightest misstep. If you didn't click any of those links, and therefor have no idea who I'm talking about, it's the creator of Star Wars, George Lucas.

It would be easy to look at the mammoth success that Star Wars has had and call Lucas a visionary. But would that be accurate? Did he know he had something so monumental on his hands before he set to work on it? Consider that the project started out as a failed Flash Gordon remake (an influence that can still be seen in many of its hallmarks). If he knew from the beginning what a golden goose he had, chances are he would've wanted to keep it to himself from the get go instead of working with someone else's property. But if that's not enough evidence that even Lucas was surprised by the success of the franchise, check out what the man himself said when asked if he saw it coming:

"I thought Star Wars was too wacky for the general public."

So there you have it. Lucas thought he was making something for a niche audience, and it blew up in his face, making him a multimillionaire and a pop culture icon in the process. He didn't set out to create a global phenomenon; he just wanted to pay tribute to the space opera serials of his childhood. He made the movie that he wanted to see, without knowing if it would ever see success. He took a gamble on his dreams.

What does this have to do with insecure writers? Well, I can't speak for all of you, but personally, I'm driven by a pretty intense fear of failure. And while at times that fear can be very motivating, it can also lead to some fierce bouts of insecurity. It's hard not to question every aspect of the projects I spend my time on. Every step of the way, the temptation to scrutinize your work is there, from the foundational idea at its core, to the method of execution that brings it to the page. And this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Attention to detail often separates the pros from the amateurs.

But we have to be careful of the temptation to chase the trends and fads of the publishing world in pursuit of success. Trying to anticipate the ebb and flow of the mainstream can be a maddening, futile process. It's one thing to weigh the merit of a work in progress in hopes of gauging eventual reception, but its another thing entirely to let your enthusiasm for something hinge on the potential for dollar signs in your eyes. When it comes to artistic pursuits, great success—while often hoped for—is rarely planned and executed down to the letter. There's a reason no one saw Fifty Shades of Grey coming.

So the next time you're worrying over the salability of that shiny idea you can't wait to get started on, think of Uncle George and give yourself a good slap. If it's an idea that you love, that should be enough of an impetus to pour yourself into it. Does that mean you can't draw inspiration from those big bestsellers that are making waves out there? That you shouldn't pay attention to the goings on of the mainstream? Or even that you shouldn't write with an audience in mind? Of course not. Knowledge is power. I'm a huge advocate of the cerebral approach. But don't let the crowd dictate your output. Cross your fingers and tell the story you want to tell. And for heaven's sake, don't drive yourself nuts thinking about marketability until you have something tangible to market.

Who knows? That little seed of an idea you have might grow up to be the Next Big Thing. You might even have the next Star Wars on your hands. But you won't know until the moment of truth. And that will never arrive if you don't let yourself write it.