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Witty Wordsmith: 5 Questions for Better Backstories

You’ve done it!  You have just graduated from the academy with a shiny new ensign!  Or maybe you just put yourself forward to play a pivotal new mission NPC.  Now you’re sitting with a blank wiki page and wondering how to flesh out a good character backstory that will make you and your fellow players want to read about and care about this character for months if not years to come.

1: Where does your character come from?

This is such an important question in defining a character’s backstory that frequently gets overlooked.  Say you want to play a human, but you want to make your human officer unique from other human officers on the ship.  Think of how different your character would be if they were born and grew up on a harsh colony world instead of Earth.  Or if they are a proud Lunar citizen and have a bunch of quirks that mark them as one.  Or maybe they grew up on a starship.  All of these locations turn a simple concept in a complex and interesting character.

Also consider – did your character grow up with lots of other species, or was everyone of the same species?  Or were you one of the only humans (or Vulcans or…) living in a very different culture.  Pick a location and build your character’s outlook, culture and quirks from that foundation.


Writer’s Workshop: Bouncing Characters

July 15, 2016 a new television premiered on Netflix. Written by the Duffer Brothers, Stranger Things has become of the the streaming services most watched and best reviewed series, due in no small part to its excellent characterisation and writing.

Karsten Runquist has devised the term “the character bounce effect” to describe the technique the Duffer Brothers used to introduce the characters and their roles in the story. Simply put, character bounce is placing characters into opposite sides in their initial scenes, highlighting the traits of each character and their beliefs, as people often show their true colours when something they disagree with is brought up.

Check out Karsten’s YouTube video titled “Stranger Things: How to Introduce a Character,” where he explains this technique and how it is used on the show.

Whilst you’re there, why not check out the rest of his channel where he has some fantastic video essays that talk about characters?


Witty Wordsmith: Acting vs. Reacting – How to Plan Better Stories

“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything” Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower

How many times have you gotten halfway into a mission or a story or a roleplaying encounter and started to feel frustrated because you didn’t have a sense of direction or your team wasn’t working together as a cohesive whole?  It can happen even to the most experienced players and best COs.  Once a story starts to go off the rails problems tend to increase as more players get frustrated and start reacting to what’s being thrown out in the plot; and reactions often prompt bad decisions and the situation can easily snowball.

A lot of things can derail a mission.  Maybe one team was more clever than expected and they solved a part of the story too fast so the player portraying the adversaries tossed out some unexpected new opposition to entertain that group while the other teams catch up.  Maybe too many players decide to escalate a situation until it becomes ridiculously tough to handle or maybe the mission leaders decide to spring a surprise on unwary players who react badly.  Derailing doesn’t have to be solely the fault of poor mission planning and it can happen to anyone.  But the good news is there’s some ways you can deal with it when it happens and plan to stop it before it starts.


Witty Wordsmith: What is Powersimming?

The word ‘powersimming’ comes from the term ‘powergaming,’ a term which came out of tabletop roleplaying.  Powergaming is when a player focuses on the mechanics of the game so heavily that they stop thinking about the story that the game is trying to tell, the appropriateness of what elements they are placing on their character and the balance of the character in the party so that everyone is having fun.  But what does it mean in a script-style sim that doesn’t have game mechanics or dice rolls?

Powersimming is where one player dictates the actions of another player or players by “writing them into a corner.”  The tags in a powersimming exchange do not open up the action for all players to contribute equally, but instead drive the other players into following the ideas and decisions of the writer.

No matter what the game’s rules are, powergaming or powersimming both have the same root problem – they give a dominating amount of control to one player while the other players feel sidelined.  Unfortunately in a script style game it can be difficult to know how to advance a story without powersimming.  But it also tends to be much easier to correct powersimming than powergaming – you don’t have to re-roll your character, you just need to adjust your tags.

So, how do you get your ideas across without pushing other characters in a controlling fashion?

Limit your tags.  There is a reason that 4-5 tags is considered the ‘sweet spot’ for most posts.  That tends to be the right number of tags to get your ideas through without forcing a scene to go in a certain direction.  While sometimes you’ll have a bit less or a bit more, if you’re routinely leaving 8 or more tags you should re-read your posts and see if you can cut down the number of tags to allow your fellow players more agency in collaborating with the action.

Don’t assume answers to important questions.  If you ask another character ‘would you like anything to drink?’ unless they have a history of never accepting hospitality (or not drinking liquids) you can safely assume the answer is yes and continue on with your tags.  But if you reach a critical moment in a scene and have to ask an important question it’s always good to leave that as your final tag and let the other player respond.  No matter how common sense your character might think their decision is, the other characters in the scene may have a completely different point of view.  A Kelpian officer might think “we should run away!” is the most sensible advice ever, while a Klingon officer would think that was the most dishonorable idea possible.

Get excited at your fellow player’s answers.  Sometimes it can be scary giving up the control of the scene to other players.  But that’s also one of the best things about simming.  If you were writing fiction you would never get the ideas and feedback from other writers like you do in simming.  That element of waiting for replies and seeing what new direction a scene goes in is a special thrill.  The more you appreciate it the more you’ll start leaving open-ended tags and have the fun of a collaborative ride and a story that go where no one expected it to go!

When in doubt ask your mentor or CO.  Sometimes learning how to leave tags that collaborate well with your fellow players is a matter of experience.  And the experienced staff on your ship are there to help any players – new or old – with playing better and writing better.  If you have questions about a scene, tags or maybe you feel that another player pushed your character into a corner and took away your agency, talk it out with your staff.  Communication help solve problems and makes every game stronger and every player better.


Writer’s Workshop: 20 Writing Podcasts

Tired of listening to the same dull radio stations on the tiresome commutes? Perhaps you have an upcoming vacation and you want something to do other than reading all the way there? Well, why not check out one of these fantastic writing related podcasts?

Brianne Bell over at The Write Life has put together a comprehensive list of 20 inspiring podcasts, to help alleviate the boredom.

And if you happen to come across a helpful tip or three, why not share it on the forums?


Writer’s Workshop: Realistic Injuries

It seems that Starfleet personnel are quite the accident prone bunch. Whether they’re being hurled over a console, having lungs stolen by Vidiians or taking a phased blast to the leg, barely a week passes without some kind of horrific injury to a crewman.

When one of our characters is injured, how do we describe it? Do we base our writing on our own experiences or simply imagine how it would feel? How do you write the injuries in a compelling manner that engages your audience?

Not all of us have had the misfortune to suffer serious injury, and perhaps find it difficult to imagine such as situation.

Leia Fee and Susannah Shepherd have put together this incredibly helpful resource on realistic injuries, which covers a wide variety of injuries and symptoms, including a description of the stages of blood loss.

In addition to their injury descriptions, is a references section with a few links to other helpful resources. For those who are squeamish, fear not, they haven’t included any images!

So next time you character gets into a fight with an Orion slaver, why not try to add some more detail to their suffering!


Writer’s Workshop: 5 mission ideas inspired by sci-fi reads

Mark Twain once said: “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope.”

I was reminded of this during last week’s fleet chat when fleet fixture Renos was talking about how he wanted to run a mission somehow based off Pokemon. (Fighting tribbles, perhaps? A holodeck game gone wrong?)

This got me thinking about some of my favourite stories, and ways of drawing on inspiration from them to create missions that go beyond fighting intergalactic terrorists or settling diplomatic disputes between Klingons and everybody else. As writers we are constantly riffing on ideas we draw from other sources. Through speculative fiction concepts we are able to explore unique settings and themes that put our characters in situations that live up to the term “science fiction.” I put together some examples of how we could draw on our favourite science fiction stories for SB118 missions:

1. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Summary: A dystopian future where books are outlawed and “firemen” raid houses and burn contraband literature. After an interaction with a strange young woman with a unique philosophy a lone fireman grapples with his beliefs about a hopeless, violent, anti-intellectual society.

Idea: The crew is called in to help a covert Starfleet anthropology team observing a post-atomic, pre-warp civilization. When an anti-intellectual government rises up and creates book burning brigades to control the populace, one of the anthropologists goes AWOL to help protect the culture’s rich literary history. The crew is ordered to extract her before she contaminates the culture, but by doing so would be helping the “firemen.”


Witty Wordsmith: How to Avoid Burnout

“I don’t know what to do next in the story.”

“I have writer’s block.”

“I’m just not interested in my character anymore.”

Have you ever gotten these feelings?  Have you had a hard time connecting to the story and the game?  Burnout is a natural pitfall of any hobby, especially creative ones.  It happens to everyone at some point in their simming career.  But there are some tricks to enjoying the game long term, and to rebound from feelings of burnout without quitting the game for long spans of time.

At base, burnout is when you don’t know what to do next with your character.  This could be because you can’t think of what actions to take next or could be due to a feeling of disconnection from the character where you don’t care about what happens.  Either way, the longer it goes on the more likely you’ll stop having fun with the game.  So how do you stop this from happening and turn it around?


Writers Workshop: Advice from Award Winners

We’ve just seen the 2394 Fleetwide awards ceremony celebrated at the end of June.  It’s a time of celebration and inspiration for writers of all levels.  Maybe you’ve won a few awards or maybe you will be working hard to win your first award next year.  No matter where you are in your writing you can always learn something from your fellow players!

In celebration of the fleetwide awards ceremony, I asked awards winners for some advice to share with newer players.  I hope everyone can take something from these wonderful words of wisdom, and once again congratulations to every player who won an award this year!


Witty Wordsmith: Leadership in action (words)

You did it! You just got that second (or third) pip, you gained the confidence of your CO and are the shiny new assistant chief or chief of the whole department. Are you ready to order your fellow crew and NPCs around? For some players and character this is a big step. Going from being the person following the orders to the person giving the orders is a whole new world of writing skills to explore.

If you’re having some trouble with making this shift or if you’re frustrated that other players aren’t following directions in game, consider how you are presenting orders to them. The language that you use to give directives to fellow characters – especially PC characters – will have a direct effect on how your fellow players respond. Your orders can be precise or open ended. They can be flexible or dictatorial. We’re going to look at how these styles of language can affect how others view your character’s leadership style and how other players react to your in game orders.


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