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Good Dog

4 min read
If I were an NPC, I'd want a player character instead of a dog. They sleep and eat elsewhere (or not at all), don't need to be taken for a walk (just give them a goblin to play with), they are not smelly (even if they just crossed a swamp full of undead hydrae) and all you got to do is giving them some coin (which a game designer placed in your inventory) when they solved the task you gave them. Sometimes you can even send them to someone else for payment. You may even tell them you tricked them into work and refuse payment 'cause you are oh-so-terribly poor. As long as you don't withhold their experience points, they won't even eat your brains. All in all, they make marvellous pets.

Though, pets can be quite unnerving if they do the same all day. Dogs retrieve sticks you throw for them. Player characters retrieve stolen jewellry, your ancient family heirloom, or just a random number of, well, sticks. So what if you want a more interesting pet? Tell him so save the world? That's crap, you'll just get killed by the evil guy to motivate the player character. But there are different kinds of tasks to send them off with and still survive.
For an instance, send them off, then disappear into nothingness and leave the payment trouble to someone else. Your opponent in a certain quest, at best. The only important thing is not to leave them without a quest solution; they would pursue you and get your purse or your head, or both.
You're on the secure side when you just hint the quest stuff as a rumour to the player. Make them get you a bottle of good old wine, have a nice drink and rant drunkenly about that treasure hidden in some old ruin or in the house of another NPC whom you would wish some decent thieving. Even if this is not the whole task, it's a good start: When players need to do something beforehand to get the real quest, when they do something and find out there's more behind (like a dump of rotting corpses in the basement of the NPC's manor) they're more likely to run after the stick you throw them.
Sometimes you can even get money from them. Put on the worst set of clothes in the game, wait by the roadside and whine about them evil robbers in the woods, or the baron who threw you out of your house. Money is only the usual part, of course. The true worth in this kind of quest is not the gold, but the fun when they slay the robbers or the baron, or get themselves some bruises while trying.

The annoying part is that you'll never get the really cool items which the player loots from their foes. Players always keep the good amulets and swords; if not, they'll be pissed. So make them choose: The item they are to fetch, or a good deal of money instead; or a different item. Whatever they take, they will feel it's worth even more as is truly is, as they choose and paid. It might get even more worthy when they have to do something evil to gain it. Truly evil. Others must loathe them for the deed, and not talk and trade with them any more.
Always a nice distraction are curses. Be it a cursed object which they shall find - or which they stumbled upon, what a coincidence! - or a curse which their opponent in the quest lays on them; it gives you a good reason to get them rid of the object and claim it for yourself. Still, they fulfilled the quest. Most likely, they needed the cursed weapon to do something awful which you didn't want to stain your own hands with, but you'll look like the nice helpful NPC until you're off with the amulet / sword / handkerchief of doom.
The most amusing and most content player character pets are those who never notice being pets at all. In the end you can even decide to let them know they've been a nice dog. But then, keep in mind you're an NPC, and worth some experience points if they want to whack you with their newly gained weapon.

More new rants on my blog. dracoliche.blogspot.de/
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This rant may probably be uninteresting for all of you who don't understand at least a bit of German. Truly, I'm sorry. But I have to write this, because if I don't, I'm gonna puke when I'll next time see one of my favorite books screwed up by its German translation.

 Actually I think that German translations are pretty bad since about the late '90s. They felt somehow better before that. More refined, respecting the author's intentions and the original story. Now they seem rushed.
 I don't blame the translators, 'cause they need time to do a good job. A good translation isn't cheap, as I learned while proofreading game translations, or even doing them and have an English native speaker proof-read what I mucked up. Doing a bad game translation will come back like a boomarang, one with an edge, so ouch. It seems that it's easier to forget about the readers of books as they don't cry out as loud as gamers in public.
 I have no evidence if money is the key issue about sloppy book translations, yet I'm pretty sure it is. Save time, save money, because the readers will buy the story anyways unless they prefer to read foreign languages.
 More, I'm not talking about stuff like roleplay world novels with a relatively small audience here, but about bestsellers.

 Anyways, the sloppyness of most modern translations is not the reason why I'm gonna puke. Halfhearted translations happen frequently since about a decade ago. I didn't even notice the changes from start as I prefer to read English books in the author's original language, and many others in their English translation.

 The first and worst translation that made me want to hit my head on the wall in order to stop the pain was the translation of A Song of Ice and Fire, especially A Game of Thrones - starting with it's title: Die Herren von Winterfell. Really now, this makes me think that whoever made this up didn't even read the book, and on any case threw the great many-layered meaning of the original title away for a hollow shell of boredom.
 The names of characters and places in this story are mainly more or less English, slightly off nowadays' standard, like Eddard instead of Edward, which I liked in the overall feel of the story. Also, some fantasy names for other regions, like Salladhor Saan. There are family and place names like Riverrun and King's Landing as well as Astapor and Lannister. In Westeros, they fit perfectly together.

 Now here's a problem which, as a writer, I can understand: the obvious, descriptive names partially need to be translated. You can't leave The Wall in English in the German translation if you want all readers to grab it's important meaning. Fortunately it's easy to translate in several expressions which all work, and Die Mauer reads just fine for me (even if I would have preferred Die Wand, to avoid unfitting historical connotations; personally I have no problem with this). But then there's King's Landing. It could have been Königshafen or something alike. Why is it Königsmund? Verbatim, King's Mouth. Something died inside my brain when I first read this, thankyouverymuch dear publisher.

 In games, comics and my own writing, I am confronted with translations like these frequently. When I happen to be the person making up the names, I always make sure that they work at least in both languages in which I'm fluent enough, or are easy and obviously to translate, or I provide a translation I like. Of course it would be presumptuous to expect that from every author, as not everyone wants to do such stuff or let themselves be restricted by language details, and it's simply not possible to regard all languages. I would be happy if I could just leave one expression or name there and be sure that someone translates it even better than I could. But modern German translations showed me that it's highly unlikely that I would not puke if I am confronted with the outcome later.

 Whatever died in my brains as noted above, it awoke again as a pretty nasty zombie when I continued through a German translation of A Game of Thrones and there found Lennister instead of Lannister.
 What the hell? I felt treated like a dumbass, as I know pretty well how to pronounce Lannister, and if I didn't, I would [enter indecent expression of annoyance here] simply learn it. The book would leave me a bit less dumb than before. Yay! Or I would need to allow myself a spark of creativity and come up with my version on how to read it, which I usually do - my pronounciation is absolutely not proper English.
 Instead of being allowed to be interested and / or creative, I seem to be a pretty fine dumbass if I even pay for being treated like one.
 I did not read on to find out if the Mallisters were turned into Mällisters, as to the publisher I seem to be an inept idiot who can't make up a proper pronounciation. The same happened when I faced an excerpt of Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings / Der Weg der Könige. The title translation is perfect, so I expected something matching inside ... and read Roschar. Parschendi. Schasch. All on the first two pages. And I immediately though about our well-known, stereotypically mostly used Sch...-Word. That's how this violation of language feels for me. I mean, everyone can pronounce Roshar, Parshendi or Shash, no matter if the result sounds actually English or not. Someone who is totally unable to take a name as a name will likely never read a book of 700+ pages which are densely populated with letters and fantasy expressions. Someone who can will likely feel insulted by the strange and unfitting mix of original fantasy words and germanized stuff that tries and fails to reproduce even an approximate pronounciation. Being a native German speaker who is used to a natural (sic!) use of words containing the letters s, c and h, when I read these -sch- in words that cry for -sh- I get a feel as if I had stuffed my mouth with overly sweet cotton candy on which I'll choke.

 There is no correct pronounciation if a reader doesn't know the English language, and if they don't, let them make something up. It will fit with the other in-world expression a thousand times better than any pseudo-German derivate. There can't be a right or wrong version, 'cause this last part of completing a story - reading it - belongs to the reader alone.
 Jason Janicki, author of Wayfarer's Moon, whos writing shows clearly a damned good feel for language, says that unless it's pertinent that the reader knows what something means, he would just leave it in the original.

 Messing around with pronounciation can even easily screw up the intended use of in-world language. There might be slight as well as obvious differences which one notices, maybe subconsciously, between the expressions used for specific countries or cultures, no matter if these names are completely fictional or more or less descriptive. Translate them and destroy what the author carefully made up.

 To nail the problem down, one last monstrosity from A Game of Thrones. Read on at your own risk: Casterly Rock, the century-old castle on the rocky western cliffs of Westeros, has been tortured into Casterlystein. This does not only sound like something uttered by a person with the sense of language of a brickstone (which has likely more), it also kills every meaning the original name carried. Better to miss the whole meaning than to try and force a questionably translated half of it onto innocent readers together with the feel that someone, who failed to translate the complete word, deems them brainless.

 There are some exceptions of course, as there always are.
 For example, I like the Polish-to-German translations of the Witcher novels by Andrzej Sapkowski, done by Erik Simon. They feel just right, genuine, believeable, and German feels better to me than English with these books, as it works nicely with my interpretation of the in-world names and expressions even if some aren't the same as in the original language, which I can't read. The name of the light-headed hedonistic bard-guy Jaskier / Rittersporn / Dandelion hasn't even the same meaning and still fits the character in each language (though I would also have been fine with Jaskier).
 Most of all, the use of language in the translation reads like a book, not like a hastily done reproduction of sentences. This is writing. Art. A worthy tribute to the witty, living language of the original. Thanks so much to everyone responsible for this good translation of some of my favorite novels.

 So, in the end, I have some serious words for publishers (whoever may feel addressed by this):
 Pay a good translator their work's worth, even if the sum doubles together with the time. No mediocrity, but quality. It's only one of many factors, and usually pays out.
 And don't treat your readers like inept dumbasses. They aren't. Need proof? They are readers.

 Now that I typed all the translated nonsense in this rant, I'm going to wash my hands in acid, just to make sure I don't spread the disease.
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Among the countless differences between medieval chivalric novels and today's blockbusters there's one detail that makes me like the medieval stuff better, despite its romance and descriptions and blah blah all over. I confess that I like medieval stuff anyways, but still, this was strange to me until I noticed what I don't like in many modern movie protagonists: they are lazy, whining sissies who don't dare to breath until life forces them to do so. When they are given a challenge, they will run off to mommy aka their mentor character and tell them that they don't want to be challenged. Oooo, their life could change. They could be forced to eat fruit loops instead of corn flakes. It is usually their hesitation which, in the end, causes the mentor to die, so that sissy needs to become the hero and save the world. I am quite sure most mentors throw themselves into a hopeless battle so they do not need to pamper a mewling Wangst (please look this up at tvtropes.com, the description there is unrivaled).

There are quite few modern stories that take up the old concept of a hero picking his task for himself. Please note that I am not referring to hard-boiled genres. Oh, well, influence from external forces is fine, but even without this influence the protagonists which I mean decide to do something, to act. They see the problems and move against them. They strive to reach their goal. Curiously, the classical heros from the age-old hero's journey also mainly start on their quest 'cause they want to, or feel that they do the right thing. There is not even always a problem pushing them on, 'cause the quest might simply be a rite of passage.
So how to avoid a whining sissy? The story starts with a strong, active protagonist. Don't take me wrong: even a protagonist who is depressive and cries all day may be a strong character, and even the guy with the biggest gun and the darkest stare may be a sissy.

Strong characters are absolutely not boring, and they usually cannot save the world by themselves. They usually still have a mentor. They may even embark on a hero's journey, just with a little different start. They will not be angsty about themselves, or only for a second, and they will overcome that problem without someone patting their head and telling them what to do. They thrive when you throw nasty things at them, 'cause they can proof themselves and need to overcome their weaknesses. Most of all, personal fears will never keep them from doing obviously important things.

The hard part is that an author needs to put damned heavy stones in their way. I tried that, and it proved to be a challenge. It also proved to be an exciting, interesting and motivating way of storytelling. For once, I needed to stop my protagonists from reaching their goal too easily. I had to burden them with huge flaws and confront them with obstacles and antagonists that would kill a sissy instantly. I did not leave them time for being angsty. Evil Overlords who are worthy their name, assassins, plagues, comets, and the End Of The World will not wait for a sissy to gather themselves in a two-hour pseudophilosophical whining session when the situation forces everyone to act.

This does not mean that storytelling is easier with an angsty protagonist. There are awesome stories with characters who have got a good reason to whine and hide in a corner. Any kind of story can be challenging and interesting, and it takes great effort to tell it the right way. I've got shelves full of novels with strong main characters, and in games - actually in interactive media of all kind where immersion is crucial - there is absolutely no place for a whining sissy. But then, why is modern storytelling still teeming with protagonists who face an adventure which they're not up to in the least?
There's simple psychology behind a character who doesn't want to leave his everyday's life even when the world breaks apart around him. It is easier to go on with the everyday life instead of struggling for survival, gaining a new view of the world and even a new role in it. Everybody dreams of being a hero, but only fictional characters would deliberately jump head-first into the wolf pit, into danger, fear, humiliation, pain and the splatter effects to become this hero.
The audience knows their archetypes. They like an everyday's guy to become a real hero, driven to be one by fate, then return home, build a house and make some children. Without fate - or the writer - being nasty, these everyday's guys wouldn't have gotten their backside off the couch, but likely still built a house and made children, as people do.
A headstrong character with a personal challenge that is not induced from outside might still do the same ... but usually not as their main goal. Not only do they need to solve the one big problem, but they want to.

 The big difference for an author is that a whining sissy needs to be kicked to get up. Strong characters tend to move on no matter what happens. They come up with goals, solutions and they usually savvy things going on around them, and thus they are not easy to surprise. It is hard to find a real challenge for a resilient, determined bastard, and even harder to give their personal sub-plot a distinct twist.
Maybe I'm a determined bastard of a writer who wants this challenge. Or maybe I'm just too lazy to kick the sissies each time they sit down in a corner and whine.
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Once upon a time, I played a great mod of a great game. I found some typical modding mistakes - which I know 'cause I made them myself aeons ago, and later learned to do things right - but I was happy with the nice gameplay modifications and the stunning level design.
Then that NPC showed up. He was important for the story, and I was happy to free him finally, thinking I'd get some cool reward now, which means more power in both experience points and influence in the game world. But no, Mr. NPC had to show me how able he is and that he almost wouldn't need me. Darn it. Till this point, I had played the hero of a campaign, but now that guy took over my role and made me Igor-the-Minion. Really, I was pissed.

Later on I recalled some older games (from the 1990's up to 2001) and found that there are far too many game stories with such a problem, though mostly the impact of an overpowered NPC on the player character is not as deep as in game mods. Still, it is easy to see why none of these games was very successful. They break with the one-and-only rule for every game: don't punish your players when they did nothing wrong.

True, there are games that seem to contain punishment for having success in something, like chaining the character up in prison. As long as this is a reasonable part of the story, that's all fine. What the Mod did wrong was to break the storyline of my character: I was the hero, and I found this NPC who was, in terms of storytelling, the nice helpful thingie to solve the next part of the main quest. I could as well have found some shiny magic crystal or sword or whatever, and went on with my task. But a crystal or sword or an NPC who would have fulfilled their true role would not have filched the hero task from me.

No matter how shiny and well-developed and cool an NPC is, cut him down on what's necessary for the game and story, and keep him low so that the hero - and the player - feel really needed. Never ever ignore, or even violate, the player's feel of self-efficiacy. It is them who save the world, not the shiny NPC.
Heroes are usually a picky sort of people. They live from meat, mead, experience points, and from doing everything themselves. Make them team players if need be, but don't make them Igor-the-Minion.


By the way, I'll name neither the mod nor the games. This is about narrative theory, not about bashing other people's work.
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Thankfully, one of my fancies provides me with something to rant about: Among fantasy roleplayers, it is said that players spend more time talking about their characters than they are actually playing them.
Sometimes I experienced that's true (Yes, I'm guilty). And it's sad. It breaks with one of the most important principles of storytelling: Show! I deliberately leave away the '... don't tell', as it is easy to misunderstand the 'show, don't tell' principle in many ways, and I'm not going to explain it again. I also won't go into the psychological reasons for these actions; there are reasons anyways. Forget about them, and about writing rules, and watch a talky roleplayer spreading his character's former life in front of his group.

Correy the fieldhand found an old sword and went practising. He fell in love to the beautiful copper-haired daughter of the manor lord, but of course she doesn't even look at him. So he went off to become a hero, get a shiny armor and money and stuff.
Another player thinks she could as well make him listen to her character story. Tinniel the elf bard is copper-haired, beautiful, and thinks all men are only there for her amusement. She always got what she wanted from her rich family or just by being beautiful, so she can't live with rejection.
Now, it is obvious what's going to happen: Tinniel's player knows that her bard will be rejected, so she'll maybe just ignore Correy as a possible target for her character's flirt ambitions. Most likely even, for who's going to head directly into a fight they'll clearly lose?
There could have been a great story, driven simply by character interaction and development resulting from actions and decisions. Correy rejects the bard, she's pissed and lets him feel that or even pokes at him whenever there's a possibility for revenge. Conflict will happen, whatever path it'll take. Maybe they'll become friends, maybe fall in love, maybe they'll hate each other and just work together 'cause they need to.

That's what I love about roleplay: Not knowing what is going to be. Roleplay is more than roaming the dungeon, picking at traps and slaying the occassional arch demon and undead army. It is the real, character-inflicted story beneath. Squabbling companions carry loads of suspense with them. They argue, even turn on each other, and who knows if all of them will be there and stand together with the others when it comes to the final confrontation with the Evil Overlord or whatever awaits them. There are more problems to be solved than only saving the maiden, the town, the world etc. And the game master, who doesn't know everything about the outcome of such squabbles, will have more fun too.

Further, there are characters with something interesting about them. There comes a guy who bears a scar all over his face and a red mark like from a rope around his neck. When you meet him on the road, wouldn't you think there might be an interesting story behind? Maybe he'll tell it at the campfire. But then, maybe, he just told you lies. What might be the real story behind? Does he have a dangerous enemy who will also be a danger to the group? Or did he run from justice, and now you're also in trouble for helping him?

Think about that before you give away everything about your other self in the game world. Don't save Correy the fieldhand from trouble. He's there to get into the fray, and out of it again, and to make the game being fun.
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