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Literary devices part 5 – The Mood; setting, diction and bounce

Setting the Mood

So here we are again, well into NaNoWriMo!

Today we’re going to take a look at how to set the mood of your writing, from simple scene setting, diction to dialogue, and how it wraps up. We’ll also mentioned briefly what to avoid (hopefully in a nice way). So, onward…

The Oxford Dictionary defines mood as:

“The atmosphere or pervading tone of something,” or “As modifier (especially of music) inducing or suggestive of a particular feeling or state of mind.”

When writing this can be as simple as the physical setting of your piece or, on a more complicated level, it could be represented by the thoughts and actions of your characters. If you’re writing a single short story the mood may not change. Conversely a novel will likely guide the reader through several different moods and back again repeatedly as the story arc unfolds.

We can look at mood in two different ways; mood in a narrative may possess a prevailing emotional aura of a words, or it could be a grammatical mechanic, such as the continued definition by the Oxford Dictionary:

“A category or form which indicates whether a verb expresses fact (indicative mood), command (imperative mood), question (interrogative mood), wish (optative mood), or conditionality (subjunctive mood).”

It’s quite a clunky definition but it can’t really be said in any other way!

So how do we create mood when we are writing, and how do we maintain the mood as we continue into a section or even change the mood? There’s quite a bit involved and some of it will come naturally to many writers – mood setting is as subjective as taste, colour and smell – people experience things differently (particularly between cultures). Let’s see where we can go with mood!

The Setting

It is traditionally accepted in any story that the physical setting of your writing is the best place to start. Here we subject the reader to their core senses, from sight and sound to smell and touch, hopefully generating an emotional response in their juicy brains by whetting their taste for the atmosphere we’re trying to create. Role-players and games masters will likely be familiar with this concept since it is vital to creating the atmosphere in their collective story. Let’s get a bit of practice in!

Start by choosing a place to describe, literally any place at all – I’m going to choose a beach and then I’m going to describe this beach in two different ways. Here’s our first example of this beach:

ocean waves

“A terrible leaden pall hangs over the foamy brine as waves invade the beach in broken lines. Amidst the slate shingle, broken and rusted metal fittings lie discarded, cold from bygone and indifferent currents. A shattered wreck of an ancient boat lies upturned, its hull pitted and bleached by the elements. Lurking amidst the waves, clusters of seaweed hide, biding their time.”

Our second example is hopefully lighter:

“A warm breeze filters through blue Elijah grass as rhythmic waves rustle to and fro against the smooth shingles of the beach proper. Scattered about the foreshore are tiny treasures from mariners-old, the largest, an upturned boat, its hull home to ancient barnacles. From the silvery water wave great tendrils of seaweed.”

In these two examples we can see there is a very different mood. The first is darker and foreboding, the second is warmer, happier with reflections to a merry past. In both examples I give the sense of colour, temperature and weather to hint at the atmosphere, helping to set the mood. In the second I described the same place in detail, but in lighter, warmer thoughts – gone is the grey sky and invading sea and in their place are blue grasses with calming and rhythmic waves. Even the old boat is seen in a different light, more as a refuge for nature than a wreck.

These examples don’t necessarily need to cover the same details re-skinned to change the mood, it’s just easier to give an example that way.

TL;DR: By focusing on different objects in a little more detail than normal we can show the reader important factors that suggest the mood to the reader, rather than simply telling them about the mood

Word choice or diction is important in describing the setting. Diction is simply the choice of words and phrases a writer uses. By using different words, we can show or hint at different mental states, creating different responses between scenes if necessary. In the first example I’ve used; terrible, pall, hangs, broken, rusty, discarded, shattered, ancient, pitted, and biding, among others. These are all words with a negative connotation, invoking old, war-like and dark emotions.

In the second, I use words like: warm, rhythmic, smooth, treasures, home and wave. These all have a positive connotation, inspiring thoughts of comfort, relaxation and home.

Finally, when your characters are interacting in this setting, think about how they act. Using verbs, how do the characters move about the setting? Some very simple examples of this movement are creeping or tiptoeing.

When a character walks, we don’t see or feel much for the action of moving. Walking is non-descript. Running is a little stronger, but could just be a form of jogging and is vague. Tiptoeing or creeping however suggests caution. Caution is a challenge which could have catastrophic effects for the character if they fail and are discovered, or perhaps they are trying to be considerate as they drunkenly arrive home one night?

What if you don’t like those words? Well, there’s always a trusty thesaurus! Instead of tiptoeing, we could use creeping, slinking, or sneaking to equally or perhaps better describe the action of moving to instantly create a mood with our character actions.

Caution however when using words to describe the setting, which go hand in hand with using emotions to help portray the mood: using words that are directly associated with the emotions of moods is likely to read poorly, such as jealous and joy etc. Try to avoid the clichés such as happy sun, sleepy moon or angry wind. Unless you’re writing a child’s story book, of course.

Be creative though, and mix up your descriptions, use some alliteration and other literary devices to add a bit of spice.

These sorts of techniques come naturally to some writers, often in a purely subconscious manner. Don’t worry too much if you struggle with this – quite often it is subjective and I firmly believe that you get better at this with experience and life generally – read more and you pick up the vibes from other authors. It’s almost likened to a shared writing experience.

A little note on tone. Tone is created by the choice of words you select when writing. Tone is the narrator’s attitude rather than the mood, which is felt rather than read.

white and black moon with black skies and body of water photography during night time

Time

Choosing the moment of your setting is equally important when writing to enhance mood. By creating the setting with a narrative arc, you can create tension or excitement. Think about it this way; your setting should have a beginning, a middle and an end just like any successful story. Start with character action, include the setting, then move onto an element of the story, finally conclude with some sort of discovery. Let’s have a go at creating an example from the one above, I’ll change the direction a little to focus on the past tense. (P.s, its just a draft which may evolve as we go on).

“A terrible leaden pall hung over foamy brine and waves invaded the beach in broken lines as people, cloaks held tight about their necks, struggled forward through the wind. Amidst the slate and shingle, broken and rusted metal fittings lay ruined, discarded by bygone and indifferent currents. The people stopped abruptly. A shattered wreck of an ancient boat lay upturned, its hull pitted and bleached by the elements. The leaders of the people gathered and spoke in hushed tones; was this the vessel they had been warned about? Lurking amidst the waves, clusters of seaweed hid, biding their time.”

This example may be a little off-putting without more context, but the elements of tension and underlying horror or fright are present without actually telling the readers they should be feeling these emotions.

We have a start – people walking, a middle – discovering the upturned boat, and finally the end – a warning or worry about the discovery. It’s not a full narrative arc with a conclusive ending, but then not every ending needs to be conclusive! Have a go carrying out this step with your own location and see if you can match a mood. Get someone to read it and ask them what they feel from it.

The great thing about these skills is that they can be used for literally any genre. We’ve seen how mood changes with simple language use to cause tension to build up in small narrative arcs, powering your reader through to the end. So, we’ve covered mood with a setting with some examples, and we’ve mentioned diction as a strong tool for creating a feeling and a sense for a location, with some character action… what is next?

Pacing & Rhythm

Pacing is a great tool for creating mood in the form of tension, or lack thereof. Short and sharp sentences are capable of producing suspense when they play out over a paragraph – but careful not to overdo short sentences as it can lose its influence quickly.

Longer sentences, with commas, help to produce vivid and deep thought as the reader takes a mental breath at each clause. You’ll often find this in prose and poetry, but it is a valid literary tool for fiction. Getting the balance right is tricky but rewarding. Take time to read each line when you are editing and feel the bounce of the rhythm. If it fits the mood, then you’ve cracked it!

marketing man person communication

Dialogue

(I’ve covered dialogue previously, but I’ll go over a few more ideas here.)

Here we’ll look at dialogue and monologue as a way of creating the mood in a literary piece.

Dialogue is communication between two or more characters, whereas monologue is simply a single character’s thoughts or words kept to themselves. Focusing on dialogue, we find that no two conversations are going to be the same, but their moods can be. As with the example above regarding setting, the same conversation can be had with different moods by use of diction and dialogue. However, unlike with a descriptive setting, dialogue uses line and sentence length, grammar and punctuation to more effect. Let’s use an example to give us a better idea:

“This looks like a place in my dreams – perfect in every detail, right down to the shingle and the distant grey storm. There’s is not a bird in the sky or a lion on the shore, only the seaweed and the growing waves,” Eric said.

“We should move no closer. If we do, there’s a chance we will bring doom upon our people. Please. Caution, my lord. This is dangerous!” said Rolf, tugging at the tails of his beard.

“No. We look closer. Move.” Said Ragnar, pointing to the boat.

OK, it’s not book-signing quality dialogue, but it’s a very simple example of the mood. We know that they have arrived in a place (in context, the beach we spoke about earlier). There is something unusual going on as Eric thinks he has seen this before in a dream.

Eric talks in longer lines and focuses on the details of his surroundings – he is not worried, more likely overcome with wonder at the similarities between the place and his dream. Ragnar seems to be giving orders, despite the advice from Rolf who seems to be worried. Rolf talks in shorter sentences, suggesting he talks quickly. We added an exclamation mark to his speech to punch his meaning, suggesting he is tense.

Ragnar uses similar short sentences but in a different form; he is curt and to the point, giving the command to get closer with a single, final word. We get the impression Ragnar is not a thoughtful leader of his people, since he seems to be single minded about the situation.

Monologues work in much the same way: whereas a dialogue involves two more characters conversing on the subject, a monologue is self-centered on the character. A key difference however is the ability for the characters internal thoughts to be at a complete juxtaposition to their environment, which can add distance between the character and their surroundings. As with any dialogue, a monologue should only ever push the story and plot forwards, otherwise we do not need to read about it!

We can see that the dialogue on its own can be successful by itself, but by combining our examples of setting and dialogue, the mood and atmosphere are supported:

A terrible leaden pall hung over foamy brine and waves invaded the beach in broken lines. People, cloaks held tight about their necks, struggled forward through the wind. Amidst the slate and shingle, broken and rusted metal fittings lay ruined, discarded by bygone and indifferent currents. The people stopped abruptly – a shattered wreck of an ancient boat lay upturned, its hull pitted and bleached by the elements. The leaders of the people gathered and spoke in hushed tones; was this the vessel they had been warned about? Lurking amidst the waves, clusters of seaweed hid, biding their time.

“This looks like a place in my dreams – perfect in every detail, right down to the shingle and the distant grey storm. There is not a bird in the sky or a lion on the shore, only the seaweed and the growing waves,” Eric said.

“Move no closer. If we do, there’s a chance we will bring doom upon our people. Please! Caution, my lord Ragnar – this is dangerous,” said Rolf, biting at the tips of his fingers.

“No. Look closer. Move,” said Ragnar, pointing.

TL;DR, the setting and dialogue should relate to each other through the mood of the piece. Cute and sunny will likely lift the mood of most people unless they’ve suffered a terrible loss, likewise, dark and chilling is not likely to lift someone’s mood unless they’re part of the Addam’s Family!

What to Avoid

So the message that should be loud and clear by now is to not tell the reader how a character feels, particularly by using words such as happy and sad. Instead, we now know to describe the feeling and the reaction to the feeling. We can describe the surroundings of of the character in the setting to support any dialogue and emotions to create the mood. And the mood should develop with the narrative arc of the section and the whole piece of your writing to keep it flowing to a rhythm.

Show, don’t tell, as they say.

If you’re really stuck

Here’s an idea to get you out of a rut. Let’s say your trying to write the mood and you’re really stuck with where to start. My advice is start with what the characters sense first, or if there are no characters, what the reader would be to sense first. This is usually, sight, sound, smell and finally tactile. Write a list of single words you could describe the setting and mood with, any words that fit or could fit. When you’ve got a good number of them, go through them and cut out the ones that seem too weak or flimsy. Now put them in order as we just mentioned (sight, sound etc). Using this as a framework, start filling it out as a paragraph… then go from there!

That concludes this installment. It’s been a busy few weeks with all our projects on the go, but we’re enjoying every moment of it!

Don’t forget to leave a comment, like, or an upvote if you’ve found this helpful. We’re all for helping!

J.D Ferris, CC

Literary Devices Part 1 – Four ideas on How to add something to your fiction, prose or poems

Literary Devices Part 2 – Four more ideas on how to add something to your fiction, prose or poems

Literary Devices Part 3 – How to avoid Exposition Pitfalls in your fiction, prose and poems

Literary Devices Part 4 – Dialogue techniques and capturing fictional realism

D&D and Dice Manipulation – Two opposing styles of Dungeon Masters

I’ve been thinking really hard recently about why I enjoy some Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) games over others.

Let me explain; we run a gaming session where the DM chair is a hot seat – we take it in turns to run a game that lasts 3 or more sessions to keep the game fresh. We play once a week for about 3 hours. The world is continuous, so whatever happens in one adventure still happened when a new DM takes over. We each have a personal pool of characters we choose for each new adventure, which kind of builds up a nice cohort experience (oh cool, today I’m playing alongside Sam quick-fingers, I love that guy!)

Switching DMs has its good points; we never burn out as the DM and if a style of play or game session isn’t working, we aren’t stuck with it for too long. We have our own styles of adventure design and things go well.

What I’ve struggled with over the last couple of years is the fudging of dice rolls as a DM. I know I do it on rare occasions to ensure that most of what I’ve written is never missed, so long as the narrative of the game is maintained, and I know it happens with the other DMs in the group, and of course outside of that group (I play D&D over a large area of players).

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What am I talking about?

Dice fudging is when you, as the DM, roll your dice behind your nice screen in secret and choose to omit a certain dice roll for whatever reason; avoid killing a character by accident or in a lame fashion, making that save for the NPC so the encounter has some meaning etc. I prefer the term dice manipulation, as we’re not always disregarding the dice wholly, we’re just trying to make our session better.

It isn’t cool for a player to fudge their dice rolls – we call that cheating, so why do we as DMs accept it as part of our game?

I’m in two minds about it currently, and I’m hoping to put a case forward for each style of play.

Benefits of dice manipulation

When we manipulate the result of a dice roll, often we are doing so to keep our narrative on track and stop the train from derailing itself by chance. This isn’t really a bad thing, as the effort we put into the design of the game and the story should be fully realised. Sometimes the party will miss a vital clue or aspect of your game which they really need to see, so it is more of a gentle nudge.

Encouraging new players to games like D&D may require them to enjoy their first few sessions in a safe environment. Since our first characters to the game are often the fondest, losing that character can really put a new player down, especially for the younger ones.

As a DM, we can cover up our mistakes by smoothing over something we hadn’t taken into account, such as forgetting about a creature’s ability to survive certain conditions (or not) or realising too late that the monsters stat line makes it too easy to kill a character in a single, easy to hit roll.

These ideas are all fine and dandy, but when we take a closer look, are we not just pandering to players expectations of an easy game or covering our own shortcomings of a poorly written or thought out adventure?

Why we should NOT manipulate the dice

For better or worse, luck is part of the game – it’s why we use dice. As mentioned before, in a situation where a player decides to manipulate the dice roll, we call it cheating. Technically the DM can’t cheat as they are the arbiter of the rules and guidelines, but the element of chance should stand up to our rolling too – if there’s a critical roll of the dice that decides the outcome of the whole adventure, chances are we’ve done something wrong in our design step. Whatever the roll is, the players must keep to it, so why shouldn’t we?

The game is hard and so surviving the game should be the greatest reward of all. If we take away this element of danger from our players, we’re allowing them to succeed with ease and that isn’t in the spirit of things. Nothing adds tension to the game like knowing your DM is not averse to wiping your lovely creation out with not so much as a grin.

Every action has a consequence, and if the players rely on stupid ideas working when in the reality they didn’t or shouldn’t, we’re not doing them any favours. Knowing the action could fail, knowing that their character is on the knife edge means they come up with creative but believable ideas and they accept that chance alone is not enough to succeed.

Both styles of DM are valid, I think, and I will expect that if I change my own style to the harsh reality check, then those players I game with are likely to get a little miffed. But they’ll do the same to me, which may rekindle that aspect of the game which I desire most…

Ball-tightening fear.

Fantasy-Art-Images-0134

In an odd sort of way I’m chastising myself for allowing my player base to get it too comfortable, which has turned both running a game and playing a game stale, unrewarding. A bit of realistic grit in their eye will help my style of game. To that end I have, over the last few months, stopped:

  • Handing the players treasure they wouldn’t have found,
  • Avoiding critical hits – they take that damage and they smile at me for it,
  • Creating useless traps that rely on dice rolls only.

Some things I have started to:

  • Create encounters that don’t completely challenge the party right away – I want them to feel like they’re in control right up until the last encounter, where the bad guys don’t mess around.
  • Punish stupid ideas, unless I find them completely amusing – think you can kill a bear with a teaspoon? Try it…

And the result of these changes?

Fully engaged, role-playing groups who soak up the atmosphere and think wisely about what they do. They don’t always get it right, but when they do they really do, and when they don’t? They often end up travelling home to rest before planning another expedition out.

Let me know if you’ve experienced anything I’ve mentioned. We can learn from these opinions…

J.D Ferris, CC

Compelling Kennings – The must use old tongue for Fiction, Role-Play Games and Insults!

Have you used any of these recently?

Fender-bender, book-worm, rug-rat, pencil-pusher…

You’re using kennings, albeit modern ones.

To some readers a kenning will be a familiar concept. Here in the UK we use them daily, although most of us won’t realise that we’re using them. They have a definite taste of the old world and find their use mostly in poetry for effect, or the sort of language your grandma might use.

What is a kenning?

Wiki defines them as:

“… compound expression in Old English and Old Norse poetry with a metaphorical meaning.”

Not too helpful, thanks Wiki! A better definition by Dictionary.com:

“A conventional phrase used for or in addition to the usual name of a person or thing, especially in Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon verse, as ‘a wave traveller’ for ‘a boat.’”

So, we’re using two or more words to describe something, usually a noun. It seems an odd thing to do, but when you think about it, before radio and visual recordings we only had books (which most people couldn’t read) or we had spoken stories. Kennings, as far as I can tell, are stylistic choices much like a film director uses special effects to grab our attention. Kennings make you think pretty.

If you’ve ever used the phrase ‘as the crow flies’ you are describing a distance measured only in a straight line – it could be a mile directly, or it could be several miles if you follow roads and pathways. See? It sounds better, no? Apparently, we use kennings daily.

The term Ken is still used in certain parts of the British Isles, mainly in the northern regions, such as Scotland where its term is used to describe an understanding or mental perception. It’s use in English is less common, but in archaic dialects it means to acknowledge or confess.

brown book page

The best source of kennings?

Beowulf is a prime example of a collection of expressive kennings. It can be quite hard to follow without context, meaning kennings need to be backed up with a story. Here we have feed the eagle, which in old Norse terms equates to kill you enemies – the understanding would be that birds of prey are not shy of feeding on carrion, those fallen in battle. The whale road simply meaning the sea is a nice mental picture that pops into our mind even though we know what the sea looks like. To the ancient Norse or Saxons, the relevance was much stronger on account of their reliance on sea travel and whaling.

What can we use them for?

I’m suggesting you have a look at kennings when you write. If you’re writing something unusual, or in a fantasy genre, kennings can add a bit of vocal flavour, form part of a riddle or puzzle. The same can apply to role-playing games.

Kennings arise from the poetry of the old world, dialects and stories from skalds (Norse story tellers) and become commonplace between people who are isolated from the rest of the world (a bit like Iceland or Greenland). It adds a lot of immersion if people in your setting or game session refer to simple things with their own words. This works for titles, places of taboo, legendary figures or important tools to a culture.

It also means you don’t have to create languages up!

Things I will be using Kennings for in the future:

  • Names of magical items
  • Titles and names of great beasts or creatures, like Dragons!
  • Fancy slurs for rough and ready fictional characters
  • ‘Old-tongue’ for archaic dialects (see what I did there?)

Here’s a few more examples of modern terms we use today, which you may not understand if you’re in a different dialect bubble to mine – you can see how kennings influence our daily lives still:

  • Hot-potato – when there’s something no one wants to go near or touch!
  • First-Lady – the president of the US’s wife or the president of the US if she was a lady?
  • Tramp-stamp – tattoo, usually on the lower back of a woman.
  • Granny-chaser – I won’t explain this one.

So, as you can tell, they are not always glorious or quaint metaphors, some being quite distasteful! But the use of kennings has not gone away in thousands of years. What started as an oral story telling tradition has thankfully found its way onto paper and into books and is now digital too. Kennings have survived where cultures and societies didn’t.

photo of sea near cave
Iceland – no wonder they needed creative kenning

It seems the Kennings are still a huge part of our language and will probably remain to be so until we stop language altogether.

Have a go yourself, see what you can come up with!

J.D Ferris, CC

The Awkward, the Bad and the Great – Dealing with the Players

It is often all down to the DM to run the game and make it a good one. There’s always the expectation that this game is going to be as good as the last one or better. It’s capitalism of the RPG world – they want more and more each session. But the game isn’t purely the responsibility of the DM; players are there too and the expectations of all involved should be considered.

The expectations of the players are more varied than we might think; some are there for the story, others for the thrill of the dice and fewer, thankfully, are there to roll dice and crunch the numbers like Scrooge on Tax Day. Unfortunately for you, as the DM, you have to balance all of these aspects, but you shouldn’t pander to them all – it’s your game too.

I’m going to assume that you play with people you know, that they are reasonable people. I expect there are unreasonable players out there – the internet is full of those stories, so I’ll touch on those style of players too.

This article is about the bad players, the awkward players, but also the good players – and we’ll cover how to deal with the bad ones, and encourage the good ones. But first, let’s talk about the ones that aren’t bad players, they’re just… awkward.

This is all my opinion, and you’re welcome to discuss them, share some stories of your own – we can only learn more.

human fist

The Awkward Ones

The awkward ones, like the Deep Ones, are often hidden at first. We may think that their first character is just a bit of a buffoon and that soon they’ll get into the story. Sadly however this will not always be the case; sometimes we see an Awkward One develop and we need to make sure they don’t derail the story accidentally, or otherwise.

slippery foot dangerous fall

Comedic or one-dimensional characters may seem like a little light relief the first time have a tendency to become habit for some players. The first time it’s all fun and there’s no problems, but often these players will see it as scoring social points for themselves; it will feel good for them and so the habitual pathology sets in, the player now thinking that funny = best game ever! Eventually this will ruin the flavour and immersion of the game.

How do you deal with this sort of situation? In my experience the best solution is tact. Quite often a player like this needs attention, which in itself is not a bad things; we all need attention sometimes, but for the comedic player, it feels new and good and they probably don’t realise.

Give them a bit of space to enjoy being comedic, but encourage wit and humour rather than outlandish and excessive. A quiet chat after the first session to explain to them that actually, yes it can be amusing, but the harmony of the game is broken by the ever increasing hair brained ideas. People will laugh, then chuckle, then get tired real quick of it. There’s no need to kick them out of the group, if they’re willing to keep their exaggerated theatrics in check. Promise to reassess the situation if they seem amenable to the idea.

police money finance funny

The DM who Hijacked your game thinks they know better or perhaps don’t realise they are not the focus of attention anymore. This is normally purely accidental; as DMs we can grow accustomed to the idea of being the focus of attention, since we run the game and very little interaction or action occurs without our help. This one is fairly simple, you call the shots for this game, don’t be bullied into changing your mind, unless of course the idea they put forward is sound.

Chatter boxes, or social annoyances, who talk about non game stuff and don’t know when to stop, potentially ruining the immersion and tension in the game. I tend to get this out of the system of players before the game starts by having a catch up chat, getting all the news out in the open and discussed before sitting everyone down. I also ask that all media that isn’t relevant to the game is taken away or turned off, or at least not in sight.

If it’s persistent, you can ask that player, politely and aside from the others at a later time, if they want to be there to play the game or just because their friends are there. It’s cool to hang out, but don’t detract from the fun of the game that we enjoy.

Showboaters just love the attention and want to get in on the action whenever they can. This isn’t bad for a game that needs a bit of life injected into it (especially if it has been a hard day at the office). What isn’t cool is overriding other players or butting in on their turns to act.

This is a hard juggle, but as DM you are justified to point out whose turn it is, and that if a player needs the showboaters help or advice, they can ask for it. Remember, we don’t want to cut off their enthusiasm, we just want to let them know that other players are entitled to the limelight too.

purple liquid poison on brown wooden surface

The Bad Ones

Before I get into the stereotypes of bad players, I’m going to talk about the nature of the conversation around your gaming table (or wherever). It is best to openly discuss with your players before you start playing what sort of behaviour you all find acceptable during the game and on the sidelines; I’m talking about racism and sexism, amongst others.

It is perfectly acceptable to have these as elements in the game, it is after all usually set in a backward or less liberal society than our own. For this reason, you should let people have a say in what they find comfortable. If it’s a no from them, it should be a no from you, and vice-versa. D&D is an inclusive and cooperative game, and relaxed participants make far better adventuring buddies!

If it does crop up during play, as the DM you should be able to tone it down and talk to the offenders after the game session to suggest they tighten up – it’s ok to hate another race of people in character, but it shouldn’t spill into the real world, the same applies for sexism. If it happens that either of these topics comes out into play and is directed player to player, rather than character to character, you must stop it right away. Call it out, quash it dead. You are the DM, and you run this game.

So, the Stereotypes…

Player stereotypes have come to be identified from the internet – the internet has given us names for the power gamers, the min/max’er, rules lawyer, and the metagamers. Before the internet (I know, was there ever such a time?) we just thought they were annoying players who happened to enjoy the same hobby, so we were delighted at having the new player along for the ride. How wrong we were!

I’ve run a good number of gaming groups beyond my primary group over the years, this is how I dealt with the unhelpful ones.

golden statue under blue skies during day time

Not to be confused with the player who creates an efficient or optimised character, the power-gamer and the Min/Max player are those who either have to have it all at the cost of nothing, or throw everything out of the window to maximise a single attribute, ability or power – and use it at every possible moment. Normally a maturity issue, or the feeling of helplessness in their real lives leads them to want to show the world that they can do the thing, and force it on every situation.

Dealing with these players can be tackled in two ways in my experience: critically evaluate any character sheet prior to your game, with time to allow for changes, or subject your players to constrained resources, for example, only character material from the core Player’s Handbook may be used. As much as I love unearthed arcana and supplemental material, they tend to promote niche ideas into the game which can feel over balanced. These players will then latch onto these cool ideas, and completely overplay them.

Rules Lawyers: Players who spend most of their game in the source material, or spend all their free time reading the books and remembering every single bit of detail are fine, even helpful, like little biological libraries you can call on just by asking. However, it is the ones who keeping calling you out as the DM for your mistakes or lax enforcement of the rules who are the problem. Nothing ruins a cool cinematic moment when the party are about to hit the jackpoint with an amazing idea when the Rules Lawyer calls a stop to the game with the immortal opening line “I think you’ll find…”

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There are very simple ways to explain this or overcome the problem.

First, all the source books ever made for games like Dungeons & Dragons, every single one, are purely guidelines given the misnomer of rules. You, as the DM, are capable of overriding some of those rules now and again if you think it works or if you think for this occasion they can be fudged – heck, most of being a DM is fudging the rules to get the most out of player interactions.

Secondly, if you’re more diplomatic and want to avoid arguments in game, call upon your powers as a DM to completely override their opinion, but only with the promise to review the rules stated after the session and come to a compromise. Or, for this session only you can maintain your DM ruling, and endeavour to assess the rule for next time. Rules lawyers can be compromised with – if they don’t want that, then they are free to evaluate their expectations of your game. You’ll welcome them back with open arms if they wish to return.

Metagamers are those players who use information or knowledge beyond the scope of their character. Weirdly, if you’ve been playing D&D for decades, it is almost impossible to not metagame on some level. There are always repeat or extreme offenders though. It may seem like they’re just being lucky in their assumptions about that monster at first, but eventually you’ll realise that the metagamer is using his or her outside knowledge to influence their actions and maybe even the actions of others.

I deal with this foible in a few different ways: I can ‘reskin’ my monsters in their appearance or stats to keep the metagamer on their toes by describing monsters differently or altering their behaviour style and resistance qualities and combat abilities (which can get exhausting without proper planning). But what if the player is metagaming the plot or story?

Plot metagamers use their vast knowledge of fantasy and sci-fi to guess where your adventure story is going by relying on troupes, or popular fiction to base their predictions on. When this happens, it can be frustrating; the story is often the most creative part of the DM process. How did I deal with this? Well if you can’t avoid current popular stories from movies and fiction, I suggest you plan your adventures with an open ending – whatever the plan was, whoever is the bad guy, make them the second to last badguy, and put someone else who they’ve met previously as the badder bad guy.

Or tell them to get out. 😉

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Good Players and Encouraging New Players

This is the nice, positive part to being the DM.

I’ll make this brief, but you get the idea:

Good players…

  • Role-play and encourage role-play from new and old players.
  • They go with the flow regarding your narrative choices and instead of sulking justify the response of their character to keep things going without selling out on their character.
  • They don’t argue with your choices but if they get really narked, they’ll talk to you about it after the session, like a grown-up.
  • They ask pertinent questions, sometimes thinking aloud and usually on their own turn.
  • They play balanced characters, even after 20 years of gaming and realise there’s more to the game than crunching the numbers.
  • Characters they create have flaws, and if they didnt at creation time, they relish the flaws that develop organically from the game – they don’t whine and resist when things go bad – its part of the game.
  • They don’t expect special treatment, but they enjoy their share of the stage lights.

Thoughts and opinions? I’m all ears!

J.D Ferris, CC

 

Opening Lines from stories of the last century – why you should master them!

“Frank; what can be more self-inspiring than the opening lines of your own novel?” – I’m not sure I cracked this first time, but here’s how your opening lines can be great if you’re willing to learn from the some of the classical heroes of literature.

All the best first lines in literature are vivid, granting us a clear image which kicks starts the story in a tone that carries us forward.

But how do they do it? What sort of ideas can you use to inject a fist full of Bruce Lee punchiness to your opening lines? Well I’ve got some ideas for you, with examples from my favourite fiction authors in horror, fantasy and adventure fiction, proving that one hundred year old ideas can still be used across genres and in modern writing.

What is a perfect opening line?

The perfect opening lines need to grab us, they need to open their broad arms and tell us that we’re to expect something more, warm arms that wrap around us and make us cosy up to the fact that we’re going on a journey. They may not need to set the tone of the whole story, but they need to grab us and either draw us in with succulent words or punch us in the face and toss us into the inferno.

Your ABCs

Some simple tips for your opening lines:

The most basic step is to name a character. Naming someone makes aspects of the content real for us from the moment we start reading. Got that Frank?

Now that we have named that fellow, it helps to see what they’re doing. Creating an action provides us with the sense of motion of going forward, even if it’s the most mundane action in the world like breathing. Frank, put that coffee down and come over here.

Next, we’re going to dabble in a bit of emotion, ideally something we can all relate to. Since we’re all humans (I guess you may not be?) we all feel, and we want to be sympathetic with the character. Sit down Frank and wipe that stupid grin from your face.

Combining these elements may not give the best or most exciting opening, but many great authors use the same ideas and ramp them up to a magnitude of thousand. We’re going to take a look at how writers tackle their opening lines, some modern and some from nearly a hundred years ago!

Howard's Conan

Here’s a classic example from The Pool of the Black One by Robert Howard, original author of the Conan tales circa 1920s:

“Sancha, once of Kordova, yawned daintily, stretched her supple limbs luxuriously, and composed herself more comfortably on the ermine fringed silk spread on the carrack’s poop-deck.”

In this grandiose opening line, we get a name, a title of sorts then an action followed by a second action and so on. I love this opening line because we get so much in one sentence that there’s no question who we are looking at; a woman with a mysterious background who is at ease and likely familiar with the finer things in life, probably a pirate!

But what if you want to set the tone in more depth?

To really highlight a sense of foreboding some authors use a hindsight perspective. This hindsight gives the reader a sense of time passed and already conjures notions in our mind that we’re to expect more. This perspective makes us ask questions without really giving us enough details. We simply want more. I draw your attention to Herbert West – Reanimator by Lovecraft, from the same era as Robert Howard:

“Of Herbert West, who was my friend in collage and in other life, I can speak only with extreme terror.”

This is a classic opening from Lovecraft which crunches familiar ideas together in a great juxtaposition; ‘friend in collage and other life’ and ‘extreme terror’ are not usual bedfellows. When I first read this line I was a little stunned – what happened to these two friends to invoke such terror?

Lovecraft’s voice here is very formal, we’re probably reading a journal or a confession, but also remarkably relaxed, as if the author has come to terms with whatever happened and reflects on past deeds.

Lovecraft also states these things as facts.

Simple facts, or even complex ones can hammer home the nature of your story. One of the strangest factual opening lines I’ve read, for its mundanity, comes from Dennis Wheatley’s The Forbidden Territory:

“The Duke de Reichleau and Mr Simon Aron had gone in to dinner at eight o’clock, but coffee was not served till after ten.”

Wheatley’s opening line gives us the very simplest of tips mentioned earlier; names and actions. What strikes interest here, other than the mundanity is the fact that there’s a gap in the timescale. Most of us wouldn’t question a two-hour gap for eating, but in this post-war era the inference is that something went on; a long discussion perhaps, or an unexpected guest. It makes us question what happened and is the simplest pull into a story.

Lovecraft Stories

Being Vague

Running the same theme of factual storytelling, Anne Rice, a vivid writer with a clean voice started Tales of the Body Thief with these very simple lines:

“The Vampire Lestat here. I have a story to tell you. It’s about something that happened to me.”

If the reader is familiar with Rice, Lestat is an old Vampire with several hundred years under his belt. Lestat’s informal voice comes from his adaptation to the modern world, like we’re supposed to know him. Indeed, this isn’t the first Lestat novel but it captures Lestat’s lazy and disregarding nature of mortals (which he desperately wants to recapture). So, Rice gives us a name but there’s no action! This is fine, because in a very blatant but well executed introduction, we know there’s a story to tell here. Again, the hindsight perspective works nicely to draw us in.

One last example of using unknown past circumstances comes from Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World one of many Wheel of Time books:

“The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what happened.”

Simple questions arise. More vague, check out the opening line to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte:

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”

You can’t really get more vague – if this was Face Book I’d expect a lot of typical ‘U ok Hon’ type responses, but this is literature and we like vague; it makes us want to know; why?

What about real Action?

Hitting the reader with real, hardcore action works well in adventure style literature and can be as simple as the following, from Shadows in the Moonlight, another one of Howard’s classic sword & sorcery:

“A swift crashing of horses through tall reed; a heavy fall, a despairing cry.”

Here we are told very little, but the imagination is fired up; why are the horses crashing through a reed bed? I suspect there’s water so it’s hard work for horse and rider so must be important. Who or what fell heavily? Who cried out in desperation? Chances are this is the result of conflict, perhaps someone has escaped or is being chased? Less than fifteen words and we’re right into the action and already asking questions.

What about using the unusual?

Unusual openings are a great way to confuse and entice readers, but they must be concise so as to avoid convoluted circles which can lose your audience. I’ll draw from Lovecraft (Call of Cthulhu) and Howard (Shadows of Zamboula) for two examples.

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”

Here Lovecraft poses a statement with a hint of reflection. What contents of the human mind are we trying to correlate? The vague hints at something deep can start the mind turning! From Howard:

“Peril hides in the house of Aram Baksh!”

Here Howard makes it very clear that there’s an element of danger, whether we believe the statement or not. The fact that it is spoken word and not narrative drops us into a place of uncertainties; who do we trust, the opinion of the speaker or the fact of a statement? We also have a name and a location – the ABC’s at work. The undertone of emotion (peril, danger or horror) tempts us with the thrill of a something we should probably avoid but can’t help but read – we’re all insects buzzing closer to that blue light in a day dream. speaking of dreams, Lovecraft’s The Silver Key:

“When Randolph Carter was thirty he lost the key of the gate of dreams.”

Here Lovecraft is suggesting there is a place that is a literal door to dreams. It implies more than the normal world without having to explain with exposition what on earth is going to happen. It is unusual but also includes elements of naming and action (in the loss of something) as well as giving us a snippet of description for Mr Carter. Added to this, we ask the question: how did the character get into this?

Call of Cthulhu

Finally, formality

As mentioned before, Rice uses Lestat’s voice to bring us in close enough to get bitten by giving the vampire an informal tone. We’re expecting perhaps blood and violence right away, instead we’re given a friendly talking to, perhaps imagined on the TV screen or the phone.

The narrators voice can also be twisted to formality or otherwise to give us some perspective, allowing to see more story without literally writing it in. Another great example from Lovecraft’s Pickman’s Model:

“You needn’t think I’m crazy, Eliot – plenty of others have queerer prejudices than this.”

Here we’re being pulled into why the narrator struggles with underground transport, but we don’t really know why, and in true Lovecraftian style we’re pulled slowly and inexorably to the climax of the horror – things lurk – which the narrator never wishes to comprehend again, but we’re going to read about it and understand why.

Not Quite the beginning

A second point of interest is that Lovecraft didn’t start right at the beginning of Pickman’s Model. Rather, he started just after the beginning of the conversation between the narrator and Eliot. Yet another great way to make your start interesting. Some of the previous examples do this too – we’re trying to draw our reader in. Ever heard the phrase ‘What’s in the box!?’ well that’s what we’re tapping into when we start not quite at the beginning.

Where does the learning come in?

We’ve pointed out some great opening lines and investigated what makes them good. To get into practice of creating great opening lines you should probably consider these last few bits of advice:

  • Write your opening lines last – no one wrote a great opening line first time. Much like any other aspect of writing, you’ll probably need to plan your writing rather than trying to create the best opening line right away.
  • Read lots of great opening lines, even if you don’t read all of the book. If you have access to books, jot down a few opening lines each day and dissect them like you’re a pathologist of words. You’ll soon start to see what makes great opening lines and not. Goosebumps are a good sign!
  • If in doubt, try, try again. You’ll not this get this right first time, maybe not even second or third time. Get advice from friends and fellow authors (this bit can be hard for closet writers!) Feedback is key, as you’ll not be buying your own book!

Now that you’ve got a better idea about what makes a great introduction or opening line, have another go yourself, even if you’re nowhere near finishing your novel or story. It can be self-inspiring and refreshing to have a go.

Go forth and kindle those flaming juices of imagination!

I’m going to start on my opening line for this article…

J.D Ferris, CC

How to be the DM (new and old) Part 2: Setting the Atmosphere

A few weeks ago, I talked about being the DM, with tips, hints and suggestions on how to approach being the DM (or GM). Today I’m going to be covering some more topics related to the atmosphere of your game; how to set it up physically and how to get the mood and tone right to really ensnare your players into your game.

Most of the advice found herein stems from developing attention and emotional investment by suspending a players belief to allow them to magically slip into the game world.

Let’s get started.

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Placement

It really depends on your situation as to where you can play your games. If you don’t have your own place it can be tricky to find somewhere quiet to set up and play. If you’re in school or college, try and get a room organised (heck, you could even start your own club if you need to!) Lunchtime adventures can be a great escape in the workplace too (it’s possible in some places).

Whether you have your own place or not, try to be somewhere quiet without the chance of interruption. Why? Well if it’s quiet and there’s no distractions your party of players will likely be focused and give the game, and you, their full attention, which helps keep the session flowing and doesn’t break the growing tension as the story develops.

Furniture & Props

When I talk about furniture I’m talking about where you sit and play. Ideally, a table and chairs are great to start a gaming session – everyone is facing into the same space, you can see the other players from the table and you can get eye contact, which is important in a game that relies on communication.

I’ve found that having benches instead of chairs really brings people together and can be more comfortable than sitting in a small chair for several hours. Give people a break now and again – stretching your legs and hooking up to reddit or Facebook should help refresh your players and the DM.

And as for Props: I’m not talking suits of armour and wizards’ hats, but they’re cool if you or a player can afford costume. Go for it, whatever helps you get into your character mindset. On a simpler scale though, I am suggesting candles to really set the atmosphere. If you’re in the part of the world where it gets dark early, candle light can really get the mood going. Candle light is not dissimilar to firelight, which our ancestors sat around and told tales as a source of entertainment. You could argue that natural light sources are kindling to our imaginations and shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s in our blood.

A note on candles however – you’re dealing with fire and likely lots of paper and other flammable objects. Keep it simple if your table is small. Tealights are a simple way of creating candle light, but if you can afford pillar candles or votive style candles, then that’s helpful. Be careful!

Too dark? Small desk lamps aimed low and down can help those with poor night vision.

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Verbal Descriptions

As the DM, your descriptions are the vital source of information in the D&D, or any role-play game for that matter. Without your descriptions you are losing the element of the story and likely your game will feel flat. This isn’t a bad thing for some groups where the game is more about tactical dice rolling, but for any other style of play, it’s vital.

So where do you start?

Here’s a few simple things to consider. Mix them up a bit to keep them fresh.

  • Sight – this is the obvious one. You walk into any room with a light source and you take in your surroundings. Commonly overlooked in descriptions is the level of light in an area. For Dungeons & Dragons, some races can see in the dark much better than other races so you’ll need to describe the surroundings in a way that gives low-light and dark-vision some weight to the game. For characters who are effectively blind in the dark, give them snippets of information based on their sense of smell and hearing.
  • Sound – Sound is something you can experience before you enter an area or place. Often it can be as simple as silence, but even silence can be described in different ways: is the silence oppressive, does it instill a sense of danger? Could the silence be pregnant with anxiety or tension, perhaps it is not total silence and echoes or rumbles with sound from other areas, giving clues to future encounters.
  • Smell – Much like sound, our olfactive sense can give clues as to the nature of a contents of a room or place before we get close. Even on a subconscious level, our sense of smell is constantly working to warn us of dangers. Unlike the other senses however, smell can be overridden; a dairy farmer will quickly get used to the smell of cow manure to the point where they can no longer perceive it, allowing them to pick up smells that others would struggle to notice. Don’t overdo the sense of smell, it can give a lot away about the contents of a room or place… or it can mask the rotting undead waiting around the corner – there’s a reason wizards and necromancers use incense in their rituals.
  • Touch – Our sense of touch may never be from direct contact, but it can help build a sense of growing horror in dark places like a dungeon. The primary sense of touch your players will need to know regards the temperature of the room. Is it cold? Did the temperature suddenly change from one room to another? Our sense of ambient temperature can instill a sense of fear, or it can be overridden by wonder and curiosity.

So how do you verbalise this information and how can we describe the contents of the room?

My personal rule about describing a location is to avoid specific dimensions right away; you can say it’s a large room or a small room, but the moment you start describing in feet and inches you can lose some interest – the prize of specifics immediately comes at the cost of interest and immersion.

So, I find the best places to start is to hit the players with whatever is most noticeable first; the things that move. Our eyes are programmed to follow movement, especially in situations that we consider dangerous. Ecologists develop an unfortunate knack of focusing on movement because they can spend days grabbing small mammals and putting them in safe places (can confirm).

The exception to this rule is when you’re trying to create tension. Let’s say the characters fall into a room in their attempt to escape and you want them to see a creature holding a blade to an innocent person’s throat; which sounds better:

“As you fall into the room you see a large red skinned creature with horns holding a young farmer with a knife to his throat.”

Or

“You spill into the room and find yourself in a richly decorated chamber of silks and cushions, lit with a roaring hearth. In the centre of the room, with the fire dancing in his eyes, a young farmer stands, stiff and pale. One arm is held tightly behind his back, the other is stretched out as if to keep you at bay. From over his shoulder a wicked slashed smile filled with glistening fangs taunts you. A demon has a knife to the young man’s throat…”

One is basic and to the point, and even though the other doesn’t give you all the information we’ve discussed previously, it builds the tension up. Your players know that there is something special in the room even as you start to describe it, and it sets the scene one piece at a time, culminating with the priority of the encounter.

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Opening Speeches

No one is expecting a theatrical overture all the time, but getting your opening descriptions perfect really brings the focus and attention of your players right up and into the game. I touched on this previously, so I’ll repeat it here:

Hit them with your first line like it means something. Start this bad boy up likes it’s a chromed Harley Davidson signed by Meatloaf, discovered by a post-apocalyptic tribe 200 years from now. Go full throttle on those natives and let them have it! But how do you do this?

I’ll tell you how!

Have your first or opening lines practiced. Get everyone settled in; all rules checked up with no more questions left to be asked. Depending on the type of story you’ve gone for, the players will determine your first line, to a degree. For me, I sometimes start my party in peril so they have to pay attention or they die.

But for first-time adventures you may want to set the tone like any good author would. There are tonnes of this information on the net, but I’ll give you my opinion.

Which sounds better?

“OK, so you’re sat in a busy tavern when someone walks up to your table and says they need to talk to you in private…”

Or…

“It is night time in autumnal Ostogar, the town of bones. The Black Boar tavern is in full swing and the patrons, a colourful plethora of cultures and races sing and drink together, enjoying the sanctuary of warmth from the bitter cold outside. In the midst of the crowd, two cloaked figures catch your eye. They seem to be trying to get your attention without raising their voice over the merry din. What do you do?”

OK so maybe I’ve embellished a little bit here and there. But the idea is pretty obvious. Even if you don’t maintain this level of detail all the way through your game session, you still got everyone drawn in from the very start. The players will already be thinking along the same lines and wondering what is going to happen.

My example is pretty vanilla here, but that’s OK for an example.

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Music & Soundscapes

This final portion of advice is more of a luxury but can seriously add some depth and immersion to your gaming session. It can also go horribly wrong, so fair warning.

Music in gaming sessions can be very hit or miss, with the tone of the music required to be just right for the moment of the story. Music can really bring things to life if the right tracks are played at the right time. I use a mixture of Spotify and YouTube to create playlists which cover most moods I am trying to portray in a game.

But it essentially comes down to taste.

Here are a few examples which may give you ideas:

I have created a playlist in YouTube for an adventure into some ancient elven ruins. For me, the ideal type of music is something haunting, which creates vistas of crumbling stone and a forlorn hope of regaining a golden age, whilst also feeling lonely. The music I use for this; Warhammer 2 Total War, the High Elf campaign tracks. It fits perfectly with the images I want to portray.

To build a gritty and expanding / progressive battle I collected music on Spotify from the Viking TV series but Trevor Morris. The combination of natural instruments with male and female vocalists brings a very personal note to a violent situation, and aren’t necessarily full of ‘epic’ music (which I personally find distracting and a little bit too good guys fight bad guys, black and white vanilla, ‘my first adventure’ kind of vibe – yeah it was a ramble).

Where can it go wrong?

Well if you bring music into your game it may give players the wrong impression, or it may be from a film or game which they didn’t like. This probably won’t be an issue to most gaming groups but it’s possible.

And what if you don’t want music?

Well there’s some interesting ‘soundscapes’ available on YouTube. Soundscapes are collections of sounds stitched together seamlessly to create ambient or atmospheric sounds. Need to hear a busy market place for an encounter; sure, there’s loads. Want something gothic and creepy for your Curse of Strahd campaign; there’s even specific tracks for that.

YouTube is a wealth of resources for this sort of thing. I can recommend Sword Coast Soundscapes for this, they have an extensive list of tracks to choose from.

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So how is the atmosphere made?

Drawing all of this together, I will give you an example of a recent gaming session I ran. I realise not everyone is as lucky to have a similar setup, but here goes…

The game was meant to be dark, wintery and take place mostly in a small town, Ostogar. The setup of the adventure was to take place in a tavern call the Black Boar – the only place open at this time of the month due to local superstition. The Black Boar inn is full of traders of all cultures and races, the only place they could all stay warm in the winter. For this tavern I played a rowdy tavern soundtrack, which I increased the volume of as they approached the building and then cranked up more as they entered.

I have a wooden table, with a slatted surface and a slightly rough texture, just like a tavern table. I set out some homemade candles (beeswax) and placed them around the gaming table. I made sure there was enough light and turned off all artificial light.

Before I knew what was happening, my players were whispering conspiratorially under the crowd of the soundscape, huddling in to listen to each other to plan and discuss the other patrons. I could hear them talk from the other side of the table, so I know it wasn’t too loud, it was the atmosphere made them drawn in together.

The game was a huge success as a single session adventure and some of the old-time players have asked to be invited back for more. My adventure was mediocre at best (I lie, I loved it), but the game really took off because of the immersion.

I hope this has given you some ideas, and I’d love to hear and discuss any suggestions you might have!

J.D Ferris, CC