by Wanderer Werewolf
©2006 Wanderer Werewolf

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   Howls, all, and welcome to the newest column to grace the electronic pages of this jolly journal. It’s a pleasure to be here, and I thank the wonderful Cubist for holding out through my trials and tribulations. It’s been a long and winding trail to get here, but now we can get started.
   Oh, the title? In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (And What Alice Found There), Chapter 4, Tweedledee and Tweedledum show Alice the sleeping form of the Red King. (If you’ve never read it, you should; and he’s a living king from a chess set, to answer the next question.) And they tell her:

   “He’s dreaming now,” said Tweedledee: “and what do you think he’s dreaming about?”
   Alice said “Nobody can guess that.”
   “Why, about you!” Tweedledee exclaimed, clapping his hands triumphantly. “And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you’d be?”
   “Where I am now, of course,” said Alice.
   “Not you!” Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. “You’d be nowhere. Why, you’re only a sort of thing in his dream!”
   “If that there King was to wake,” added Tweedledum, “you’d go out—bang!—just like a candle!”

   Cubist’s original idea, you see, was for me to write a column about role-playing games and how to re-create your favorite characters and story settings using them. Now, that’s not a bad idea… but it struck me that there’s a bigger topic to cover.
   What makes a story one kind or the other?
   For instance: What makes a Tails from the Blind Pig (TBP) story? It certainly isn’t the Blind Pig bar; Butch and the Blade takes place completely outside it, as does Death is Real (both by the rabbit-ly scribbling pen of Phil Geusz). Death is Real also proves that it isn’t the characters; there’s no Donnie Sinclair, no Lupine Boys, no Posti, not even Jack DeMule.
   No, what makes a TBP story is the background and the mechanism. To wit:

The background: Many years ago, a terrible plague fell upon the land. (I know that isn’t how the original story says it, I’m extemporizing.) Some few of the survivors were twisted, changed beyond human appearance, and sometimes given special powers. But because of their appearance, and their connection to the plague of many years gone, they are often shunned and isolated.
The mechanism: Martian Flu and its sequel, Stein’s Chronic Accelerated Biomorphic Syndrome (SCABS). The Martian Flu, delivered by a returning probe from Mars that crashed and released (some of this was filled in from later stories), spread across the world with a never-before-seen virulence and mortality rate. If you survived, there was still a small chance (the original story doesn’t mention how small) that you would be transformed, a syndrome recognized by the Posti-based Dr. Robert Stein—thus, Stein’s Chronic Accelerated Biomorphic Syndrome. Known transformation types are theriomorphic (animal shape), andro- or gyno-morphic (gender shape), chronomorphic (time shape; aging and limited timeshift) and inanimorphic (inanimate shape), and combinations are possible.

   That’s it. Really. With those two ingredients, you can write an action story (Butch and the Blade), a superhero story (BlueNight, by… well, BlueNight), or of course the ever-popular (and gently derided) angstiness that tends to populate most of the series as it now stands.
   Now, contrast that with Spells ’R’ Us (SRU): In that story universe, one setting and one character are essential. In order to be an SRU story, a story must have:

Character: The Old Man, who is almost always in the store, wearing a mage’s robe that is constantly mistaken for a ratty old bathrobe.
Setting: The Spells ’R’ Us store, where anything and everything magical can be found.

   That’s it. Use those two ingredients, and you’re all set for SRU spell-slinging action. Oh, sure, you can add Nathan (a werewolf-on-all-fours character I introduced), but he’s not necessary. No, you can cover any magical effect or setup with just the one character and the one setting. With those two ingredients, you can write stories that are humorous (the original SRU story, for example), or dark, horrific or hilarious. And with no set emotional context like TBP, there’s no one predominant story type.
   Now here’s the question: Which is the more flexible setting?
   And here’s the answer: It depends on what you want to write.
   TBP is what’s called a weak science-fiction setting. It’s only about thirty years into the future, so things have simply progressed. Computers are smaller and faster, electronics are smaller and cheaper, and cars are smaller and more fuel-efficient, with many alt-fuels and hybrids. It’s easy enough to write in. The problem comes from the background; with its beginnings in a plague that killed millions, the setting tends to the dark and depressing more often than not.
   SRU, by comparison, is a strong modern fantasy setting. Anything you can justify by putting it into a package is acceptable, so the sheer number of possibilities is overwhelming. The setting has no emotional baggage of its own, so any emotional tone will do. Character behavior has even taken a back seat to a good story at times; the Old Man has been portrayed as everything from a well-meaning proprietor (who doesn’t understand why people don’t take the warnings on the boxes seriously) to a wicked old man who specializes in ‘transformation brain death’ and selling memory-wiped insta-bimbos to the local Madam.
   So on types of story, SRU is more flexible. But from Nohow to Contrariwise we go:
   TBP is a general setting. Stories in that universe can happen anytime, anywhere. SRU, by comparison, has to have the store and The Old Man, or it isn’t SRU.
   So TBP is more setting-flexible.
   Now, as a minor sop to throw at the original concept for my column: How do you use these in role-playing games (RPGs)?
   Since TBP is a generalized setting, it’s useful in almost any game system. The strong similarity to George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards series may seem to predispose it to superhero games such as Champions, but that’s not really the case. GURPS can handle it, obviously, but so can d20 Modern (though the latter would require some adjustments and new Feats to recreate some of the abilities). Because of the tone, it actually bears a stronger resemblance to the World of Darkness games, with their gloomy, dystopian look at reality; or better yet, the little-known sci-fi RPG Underground , by Ray Winninger, in which powers are often balanced with drawbacks. (For example, getting built-in armor at the cost of being built like a sumo wrestler or having skin like a rhinoceros, to say nothing of the insanity table in character generation.)
   SRU, on the other paw, is more setting-specific; in any superheroic game, The Old Man would be a supervillain with a teleporting base of operations, and that’s not necessarily who he is. He actually works very well with the Urban Arcana setting for d20 Modern, as well as its Buffy-ish sister setting, Shadow Chasers, in both of which he can appear as a good guy with a twisted sense of humor, a bad guy who turns a profit, or a plain old neutral who just doesn’t care. “If they can’t read the label, that’s their problem.”
   In RPGs, in other words, TBP is a setting; SRU is a plot device.
   Next time, unless someone has any better ideas, we’ll be looking at the many faces of Metamor Keep.
   Until we meet again, this is Wanderer Werewolf, wishing you happy gaming and adventurous writing.

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