After re-reading through the last chapter of Seryth’s Story (19 as of this post), I realized there were some changes I wanted to make to the direction of his storyline that’d require some retcons. It seemed like a perfect time to talk about why I’m experimenting with this technique, and some of the pitfalls and bloopers I’ve already run into while using it.
Seryth’s Story is a Living Story Roleplay experiment, where I take a character and play through an existing game world (in this case, World of Warcraft), for the purpose of brainstorming for a novel including this character. Novels are made up of a bunch of little scenes and adventures that build on each other to create a larger plotline. Though in this case I knew the overall scope of Seryth’s story arc, I was foggy on the details and, in some cases, the ordering of the scenes within it.
My best writing tends to be spur-of-the-moment; though some writers come up with an idea for a plot and then craft a cast of characters around it, I generally start with a character and let their own personal troubles and experiences guide me into making a meaningful storyline. I feel this makes for characters that are more relatable and translates to scenes with more action and feeling, rather than a bunch of exposition.
In Living Story Roleplay, I combine these two approaches by taking a character and directing them towards places and themes I know I want to explore within their story, inside a game world with just enough randomness and some of its own storylines to help inform my own. When I’m stumped on what a character should do next, I then just look at the game world around me. What quest-givers are there and what are they asking my character to do? Are these quests something my character would do, or would he/she decline taking them on? Why or why not? What kind of character development or interactions might grow out of that? Are there day-to-day living tasks that might offer an interesting plot twist somewhere inside them, such as the upkeep of sleeping, eating, traveling, learning new spells, or navigating a 3-D space? This last question in particular can also help fill in plot holes, by basing the story in something mimicking reality.
Sometimes, too, the smallest of details can inform an idea. One example of this in Seryth’s Story was my observation of a scratched-up table in a worgen-occupied house in Duskwood. This static object gave rise to Seryth’s arc of nearly falling into evil — the experimentation on or slaughter of what were once human beings — and how he managed to snap himself out of it with an image of a happy family and their murder by a power-hungry beast, which was what he himself had almost become (metaphorically).
Pitfall 1: Meaningful Encounters
The first pitfall with this kind of storytelling is one that plagues fantasy fiction everywhere. You can easily fall into the trap of only writing a novel describing battle after battle with no compelling reason for those battles and no connecting story arc between them. In Seryth’s Story, this is best shown by when Seryth ran off to fight a bunch of zombie trolls in the middle of his journey through the Plaguelands. I wrote this scene down as it was something I legitimately did in-game after seeing a bunch of those zombie trolls attacking NPC guards. I reacted to this as I thought Seryth would — by joining the defense, and then investigating where the trolls had come from.
This highlights one difference between game-writing and novel-writing. In an open-world roleplaying game, you provide the world and the lore and expect the player to find ways to fit themselves into it. In a novel, the rest of the world typically doesn’t matter except for how it pertains to your story. In World of Warcraft, the reason for the zombie troll quests is (probably) to show that humans were not the only race living in Lordaeron when the region fell to the Lich King’s undead plague; otherwise, for all intents and purposes, they’re just another random encounter of hostiles for the player to kill, themed generically for the zone they’re found in. It broadens the world and gives the player something to do.
For Seryth’s Story, the zombies have nothing to do with where his plot is taking him. We already know Seryth has a penchant for helping out the locals when they’re being attacked and so don’t need to rehash this. As far as Warcraft’s broader lore regarding trolls, Lich Kings, and undead plagues, this barely intersects with Seryth’s Story at all; it’s the equivalent of bringing Tom Bombadil into the hobbit’s journey to Mordor. At most you could argue that such an encounter fleshes out the world, but by that time, it might be better to ask yourself why you don’t tell that story with another character and book directly pertaining to it. For this reason, Seryth’s encounter with the trolls will probably be one I cut from Seryth’s novel.
Pitfall 2: Copyright Problems
How much of the game’s lore might influence my own story? As far as copyright goes, lore and story elements are usually not protected, since most stories follow the same basic principles and all fantasy worlds are a hodge-podge of all other fantasy worlds as it is. So as far as pure copyright policy, this isn’t really a problem.
Still, it’s not much fun to read a story you’ve already read a dozen times before. You have to add something new to it: a different perspective or a different sequence of events. When Seryth fights gnolls and Dark Iron dwarves in the Wetlands, you already know (or you would know, if you played World of Warcraft’s questlines in that zone) why these two peoples are attacking the Alliance and how that all turns out.
Seryth’s addition to the scene is all to do with him, instead: his deepening paranoia about gnolls, and another step along his character development regarding what truly separates good from evil. Gnolls and dwarves is just a convenient backdrop to this story that I don’t have to explain to get the important plot points across.
Pitfall 3: Assuming Reader Knowledge
Or do I need to explain the backdrop? This is the third pitfall with the Living Story technique. Sometimes, in telling Seryth’s Story, I’ve made broad assumptions about what the reader already knows about the Warcraft world. Some of this I do on purpose, putting in little in-jokes for people who already play World of Warcraft to enjoy. One example of this is in the second chapter of Seryth’s story, where I make a comment about Seryth not being interested in the love-lives of the farmers he’s working for. You would have to play World of Warcraft to know this is an actual quest arc in that zone, and one I decided to decline for not having any meaningful connection to Seryth’s intended plotline, as per Pitfall 1.
Other times these redactions are a kind of short-hand for me, as I’m glossing over lore I will have to change once I translate Seryth’s Story into his Talmenor equivalent. As an example, Seryth is a void elf in World of Warcraft, with dusky blue-gray skin, and there’s a few places I play fast and loose with just what race he is. Quel’dorei? Night elf? Half elf? Or actual void elf, with the obvious void corruption that insinuates (and so ruining the suspense of his fall to evil)?
This is because, once Seryth goes to Talmenor, he’s not any of these races. He’s an akor’mar, and World of Warcraft does not have an easy analog for this race.
Pitfall 4: Continuity Problems
The final pitfall I’ll discuss here is that of continuity, and this neatly wraps up my blog post because it’s what inspired it. Five times (and counting) I’ve set up Seryth’s Story to be leading in a certain direction, only to sleep on it and find I forgot to incorporate an element I wanted, or else I take Seryth to a new in-game location to quest at and find the quests there don’t go the direction I wanted at all. I’ll give some more specific examples below.
Simple Continuity Errors
The first example of a continuity problem was when Seryth dove into the river dividing Westfall and Duskwood, but later, in Redridge, it’s explained he’s never been swiming. I did a half-hearted retcon to this by suggesting Seryth was so out of it in Duskwood that he neatly forgot about the river, but this probably wouldn’t hold up in novel form and will be something I’ll have to rewrite. The intention behind the first scene was a bit of comedic slapstick, where Seryth jumping into a cold river was more appealing to him than arguing with his imp. The second scene’s intention was to better paint Seryth as just some naive farmboy until the rest of his story takes off. The second scene is probably more important to establishing Seryth’s character than the first, where we already have plenty of interactions of Seryth being exasperated by his demonic tag-along. So this is a scene I can safely do away with.
The second example of continuity problems is one I managed to catch before I wrote out the chapter. While Seryth was in Redridge, I originally considered having him follow the questline of John J. Keeshan and Lakeshire’s defense against the Blackrock orcs. Like the problem of the zombie trolls in the Plaguelands though, I couldn’t find a compelling reason for this sidetrack and eventually scrapped it. Keeshan’s questlines are intensive in character interaction, and I didn’t foresee his colorful personality bringing anything out of Seryth that we hadn’t seen before — or would see again later, such as in Thelsamar with his encounter with the dwarf, Cannary. Keeshan is also an adaption of another character already existing in pop culture: Rambo. An adaption of an adaption probably wouldn’t fly too well in an original novel!
Squandered Plot Points
The third example of continuity problems happened in the Hinterlands. While looking for the quel’dorei lodge, Seryth encountered a female quel’dorei Farstrider who had been spying on him. This was based on me running into a rare encounter monster with the same name and appearance as I gave to the Farstrider (Jalinde Summerdrake). While I still intend to return to this character in the future, unfortunately the quel’dorei in the Hinterlands had no available quests for me at this point, leaving me at a dead end. Seryth’s adventures trying to seek out Jalinde were instead replaced with his delve into Skulk Rock, which happily furthered his story in another direction important to his development.
A similar situation happened with the fourth example. Kirkian Dawnshield is another rare encounter that appears near Northpass Tower in the Eastern Plaguelands. I was originally intending this character to attack Seryth after detecting an evil taint within him, but this left me with nowhere to go, again, as far as supporting quests which could help flesh out the aftermath.
This leads me to the last example, and the one I’ll be re-writing parts of chapter 19 for. Chapter 19 has Seryth leaving the Hinterlands for Dalaran to investigate the possibility he has a shard of a cursed weapon stuck in his chest. This moves the story along much faster than I wanted, without exploring some other important plot points first.
One of these is the befriending of two major characters: Jalinde Summerdrake and a varying cast of potentials for a paladin character, including Tarenar Sunstrike, Kirkian Dawnshield, and Fordrellon. I have plans for both of these characters, which I won’t spoil for now. Suffice to say, each time I’ve teased their appearances, the available quests have not been quite right to carry the full weight I wanted for their impact on Seryth’s Story. Since the whole point of this Living Story exercise is to create filler episodes for which I otherwise have few ideas for, this is an untenable dead end. I need more material for these characters.
For that reason, I plan to bring Seryth back to the Hinterlands to finish the few quests that are available for the quel’dorei in this zone. It may only lead to another useless sidetrack like that of the zombie trolls, but when brainstorming, it’s better to have a wider pick of potential plot points rather than fewer.
The current Chapter 19 I have I’ll still save, since it has some juicy reveals about Seryth’s parents, but it may have to be several chapters into the future instead of being number 19.