World-Building: Making Up Your Own Games

One totally optional, but (in my opinion) totally fun aspect of world building is making up fictional games for your world. Like holidays and festivals, games unique to your world can give it a deeper feel and provide an endless source of subplots, conflicts, and climactic settings.

And they're easy to come up with: just take a real-world game and change it slightly. Put Chinese chess on a circular board and change the tiles. Play chess with holographic monsters. Combine Blitzkrieg with Stratego.

For a lot of fictional games, the rules don't actually matter. Although fans have made up rules for Avatar's Pai Sho and Song of Ice and Fire's cyvasse, nobody knows the rules used in the actual worlds because they don't matter. The writers have an idea of the basic concepts of the games (taken from the real-world games they combined) and they only reveal what they need to keep the plot moving.

But sometimes you want more than that. A critical event might turn on the outcome of a bet, like in Pirates 2 or Phantom Menace. Or your entire plot might center on a game, like Ender's Battle Room. In these cases, the reader needs to understand and care about what's going on. They need to know the rules.

If you're not into game design, keep things simple. Liars' Dice, podracing, and even the Battle Room are directly translated form real-world games. The writers only made slight alterations for their settings.

If you want something more complicated, be warned: an unbalanced game, whose rules are detailed in the story, will shatter the reader's disbelief. You can solve this by asking, "How could I break this game so that I win every time?" and then fix it, but that's getting into game design techniques, which I don't think you came here for.

Got that? Here's the summary:
  • Fictional games are easy to make: take a real-world game and change it slightly.
  • If the plot does not hinge on the outcome of a game: be vague about the rules.
  • If the plot does hinge on the outcome: stick as close to the rules of a real-world game as possible.
  • If the plot hinges on the outcome and you really, really want to come up with something unique: welcome to the world of game design, my friend. Here's a list of games to study up on.
Next week, I'll talk about one particular fantasy game that doesn't work, why it doesn't work, and why the novels end up working anyway. Until then, what are your favorite fictional games and why?

First Impact: ROGUE PRINCESS by J.J. DeBenedictis

We've got one last First Impact submission for September! This might be the last critique for which I offer a monthly prize so remember: anyone who shares their thoughts in the comments is eligible to win $10 for Amazon/B&N or a 20-page critique from me. Your comment doesn't have to be long, just useful!

And I will still take First Impact submissions as they come in. So if you want a critique, send it to Details here.

Huge thanks to J.J. DeBenedictis for submitting the query for her novel, ROGUE PRINCESS. If you don't already know, J.J. runs her own excellent query critiquing/rewriting blog. You may recall she helped make my own query successful. I'm more than happy to return the favor!

Remember all this is just my opinion. If it doesn't feel right to you, ignore it. Any in-line comments are to the right, overall thoughts at the end.

Query Letter
I don't imagine necromancers with
mustaches so much, but otherwise
I love this opening.
Everyone thinks necromancers are moustache-twirlers in goth make-up and disturbing wardrobe choices. But really, they're more like Wynne--a considers himself sensitive and friendly young man who. He sees his job less as magically wrangling souls and more as offering comfort and closure to the bereaved.

The 2nd half of this sentence feels
cliche and vague to me.
So when the king tries to kill Wynne to hide the fact the queen has been murdered and reanimated, it thrusts the necromancer into a world of intrigue and violence he has no capacity for.

I'm unsure of the meaning of the
highlighted bit here.
To save his life, Wynne shimmies escapes down a drainpipe and joins the Rogues' League, a military company that offers sanctuary to criminals in exchange for service to the crown. Unfortunately, Wynne's plan to then enlist the help of the warfront necromancers disintegrates. The queen's continued un-life is weakening the walls between worlds, and Wynne's peers are too busy stopping angry souls from creeping onto the battlefield as walking dead to help Wynne crowbar the queen back out of her corpse.

I'm not sure "bigotry" is the right
term here. It makes me hate the
princess more than I think is
In fact, the only person willing to help him is the bigotry-driven princess (also hiding out in the Rogues' League) who murdered the queen in the first place. Unfortunately, her bigotry mainly consists of hating she hates anything to do with necromancy, and Wynne isn't sure this is an alliance he can survive.

"The walls between worlds" feels
repetitive to me here.
But he has to. There's more at stake than the comfortable life he had planned. If Wynne doesn't break past the palace's security and re-kill the queen, the walls between worlds will tear, angels and demons alike will spill through to wreak havoc, and the dead will rise and begin to eat the living.

ROGUE PRINCESS is a 77,000-word fantasy that will appeal to readers who enjoy the dark humor and relentless action of Joe Abercrombie's novels or Richard Morgan's A LAND FIT FOR HEROES series. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Adam's Thoughts
This sounds like fun! I think the voice and Wynne's character comes through really well, and the plot sounds intriguing. I do want a more sadistic choice to leave me wanting more (I always do, don't I?), but I think this does a good job getting the story across. I think most agents would immediately be able to tell if this was the kind of story they were into.

One thing you do want to be careful of is wordiness. You can see I trimmed a lot, and I bet you could trim even more. There's plenty of great voice and word choice here that you can stand to streamline it without losing any of it (though even I'm rethinking cutting the word "shimmies" -- it's a great image).

What do the rest of you guys think? Would you read this?

The Reality of Time Travel

"Time travel is theoretically impossible, but I wouldn't want to give it up as a plot gimmick."

— Isaac Asimov

So. Back to the Future. You know, the scene in the third movie where Marty complains they can't get the time machine to 88 mph because they'll run into a movie theater, and Doc says, "You're not thinking 4th dimensionally, Marty! When you go back to 1885, none of this will be here."

It's clever, cuz see, even though you're traveling to a different time, you're still in the same place. So while there's a movie theater in 1955, it's all prairieland in 1885. Where a bridge is under construction, 100 years later it'll be finished and you can just sail across.

But if you think about it, that's ridiculously Earth-centric.

See, during the time you skip, the Earth will have moved. For one thing, it rotates constantly. California (where the movies take place) moves through space at about 700 mph. So unless you are arriving at the exact same time of day as you left, the Earth will have shifted underneath you.

Pic by JasonParis, cc
In the DeLorean's inaugural voyage, Ein would've crashed into a house 12 miles west of the mall.
Also the Earth is traveling around the sun at about 67,000 mph. So not only would you have to arrive at the exact same time of day, but also the exact same time of year (we won't talk about that quarter of a day that makes Leap Day). So Einstein would have appeared somewhere past the International Space Station.

"Was that . . . a DeLorean?"

But that's assuming the sun is our central reference point, which is just as arbitrary. Why not use the galactic center? Or the (impossible to define) center of the universe? By some measurements, Earth is shooting through the universe at over 1 million miles per hour.

Poor Ein would end up a tenth of the way to the moon. And that's just for traveling one minute in to the future. Marty's first jump would land him somewhere past Neptune. His final 100-year trip would shoot him out of the solar system entirely.

Don't get me wrong, I love time travel stories. But writing them gives me a headache.

Who's not thinking 4th dimensionally now, Doc?