Wednesday, November 10, 2021

NaNoWriMo / NaGaDeMon - Let's Write an Adventure Site (part 1)

I don't know about you, but the idea of trying to write an entire novel, or design a complete game, in a single month (especially a month that's already filled with additional obligations to work and school and family) sounds to me like volunteering for disaster, like signing up to be crushed beneath a weight I can't possibly lift or carry. I already worry about failing at my responsibilities, I already fear disappointing people who are counting on me. 

Do I really want to fling myself into new opportunities for failure and disappointment? The NaNoWriMo and NaGaDeMon challenges say yes! My good sense says no.

But I haven't been writing as much as I used to lately, as evidenced by this year's fairly low post count, and I want to try to change that. 

This year has been hard for me. If we're being honest, the past 4 to 5 years haven't exactly been easy, for me or for a lot of people. But this year has felt different, like the exhaustion you get when all the adrenaline runs out. The disaster isn't over, the crisis is ongoing, but the tempo and the emotional tenor has changed, for me at least, and mostly I just feel tired, and it's been very hard to write anything. The one positive development for me has been that I finally feel able to read again like I used to, something that the manic phase of 2020 had nearly robbed me of.

I'm not planning on writing a novel this month, or designing my own game, but I want to do something to feel more like myself again, and perhaps enjoy the sense of accomplishment that comes from finishing something. So I want to dig up an adventure I started writing and then abandoned a few years ago, and try to shepherd it to completion. I'll need to review what I wrote and drew (and just thought about but never actually put on paper) back then; figure out what works, what needs to be reworked, and what ought to be abandoned; write new materials to fill in all the gaps; and hopefully end the month with something I can feel the least little bit proud of.

So let's write an adventure site!

I think I want to start by recalling my initial idea and inspirations for this particular adventure. Next time, I'll take stock of what all I produced before, and try to identify the biggest flaws in my original plans. (Spoiler alert - too much simulationism, not enough gamism - and also too much railroad, not enough sandbox - but I'll do a deeper diagnosis next time.)
One of my first inspirations at the time was my recently learning about the desert superbloom phenomenon. A region of desert gets inundated by an unusually heavy rainfall, and for a few days or weeks afterward, the ground is carpeted in wildflowers that only bloom once every few years.

I don't think this idea is as trendy at the moment as it was back then, but when I first started dreaming up this adventure, a kind of au courant idea was that there should be some explicit reason why no one else had ransacked your dungeon before. So the idea of a dungeon (or adventure site, or whatever) that literally didn't exist before the player characters got there and won't be around long after - that immediately struck me as neat solution to the "problem" of dungeon availability.

I decided that the center of the adventure site would be a rain-filled pond or lake, and that the rest of the superbloom site would be a kind of oasis. It's an idea that comes with some set-dressing and some potential hazards - a hot angry sun, mirages and hallucinations, cacti and succulents, desert animals, shifting sands, etc. My original name for this adventure was "Night Garden at the Vanishing Oasis" - which I still kind of like the sound of!

Another source of inspiration were some books I had been reading at the time:
  • Nick Harkaway's The Gone Away World
  • Felix Gilman's The Half-Made World
  • Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day
  • Zachary Thomas Dodson's Bats of the Republic
  • ... and perhaps surprisingly, Catherynne Valente's The Habitation for the Blessed.
Against the Day is set in the historical American West. Half-Made World is set in a fictional second-world West. Bats of the Republic is set in the West in both the past and future. Most of Gone Away World is also set in the desert, although in the Middle East instead.

Both Gone Away World and Half-Made World take place in settings where reality itself breaks down, and the world reforms itself in response to human thought. In Gone Away World, the process is faster, as cottony clouds of "Stuff" reshape themselves to become physical manifestations of our fears, desires, and hopes. In Half-Made World, it's more like the far desert is a place still inchoate, where things are made up of incorrect parts, animal, vegetable, artificial, made up of images that look almost right but not quite, not yet fully formed. A place of unreality, even temporary unreality, seems like a great place to have an adventure. Thoughts that become partially real also remind me of heat mirages, so there's a nice affinity there.

Half-Made World's uncanny imagery fits really well with Habitation of the Blessed, which is full of strange plants. There are trees that grow books as fruits - they are both book and fruit at the same time, and can, for example, become overripe and start rotting, possibly faster than you can read them. There's a strange garden with all sorts of trees, including one that grows cannonballs. And while A Voyage to Arcturus and Carcosa both famously have scenes of a person turning into a tree, Habitation of the Blessed has scenes of human-plant hybridization that are far more disturbing. A special garden surrounding a special oasis absolutely should be home to special plants.

Against the Day is filled with strange doublings and various devices that produce doubled images. Bats of the Republic has the same characters living different lives during different time periods, a kind of doubling by reincarnation, or by something like Nietzsche's eternal recurrence. Gone Away World has a few very frightening scenes of doubling, where a person's self-image imprints on "Stuff" and becomes a kind of horrible doppelganger. There are a few ways these ideas could be worked into an adventure.

There are also plenty of smaller things that could be incorporated. Individual characters who could appear as wandering NPCs. Creatures who could show up as monsters. Incidents that could form the basis of locations within the site. 

Thinking about the theme of unreality lade me to think about glitches in computers and video games. I thought that some of the more famous glitches might be neat to include to signify the breakdown of reality, things like Missingno and 'M from Pokemon, or the underwater Minus World from Mario, or even the imagery from Google's Deep Dream engine, like their famous puppy-snails, that are so much like the edge of reality in Half-Made World. I still think these would be good to include as I update what I wrote before.

Thinking about different kinds of deserts also led me to think about sea beds. I kind of thought the oasis should include a shipwreck, a ship that sank back when the desert was the floor of an ocean. I also thought that ancient sea life might come back to life because of the rain, possibly representatives from everyone's favorite Cambrian fossil site, the Burgess Shale. This doesn't seem crucial to the overall concept, so maybe I should treat these as only a tentative inclusion. This might be like a spice that gives the adventure that little bit of something extra ... or it might be thematically confusing and something it would be better to leave out.

I think all this is enough to get started, or rather re-started. Maybe too much! As I said earlier, in the next post in this series, I'll take stock of what I planned before to see what can be saved and what should be thrown out.