Wednesday, October 21, 2015


Pantheon is a storytelling game. It's made to be played with friends as a role playing game, but can also be played alone as a writing exercise. By the end of it, you’ll have created the plot of an entire novel, to do with as you please.

I can’t seem to find the quote, but some author or other (maybe one of the Orsons?) said that a good plot is a combination of something ordinary and something extraordinary. The Hero’s Quest is one of the seven basic story plots [CN: That's a link to TV Tropes], as old and familiar as storytelling itself. In Pantheon, the ordinary comes from the tried and true story structure, while the extraordinary comes from the Vision cards, and from competition for control of the plot.

The Basic Idea

There are three roles for Pantheon players: The Hero, The Pantheon, and The Muse. Any number of players can form teams as The Hero and The Pantheon, but there is only one Muse.

The Muse’s goal is to inspire the Pantheon to send a worthy Hero on a quest so grand that it will outlive the gods themselves in song and legend.

The Pantheon’s goal is to torment the Hero so he gives them a good show, and reveals himself to be worthy of their attention.

The Hero mainly wants to survive all of this.

The Pantheon can contain any number of gods, each of whom may choose which human motivations they embody. There might be a God Of Love, who wants to pull the story toward romantic interests, or a God Of Chaos, who delights in giving the Hero particularly surreal experiences, and struggles against the Muse’s notion of an orderly plot.

The Hero can also be played by any number of people. He has an Inner Coalition, multiple values and interests making up his personality, all tugging his actions in different directions. Precisely what those are is determined in game, but once established, different players can represent different parts of the Hero.

For example, perhaps one player represents the Hero’s desire to stay close to home so he can care for his ailing mother, and tries to convince the rest of the Coalition to take safer actions less likely to get him killed. Another player responsible for the Hero’s preference utilitarianism pulls toward actions most likely to benefit the greatest number of people. A third is on the side of the Muse, an aesthetic part that wants nothing more than a glorious tale to tell to his grandchildren. The caretaker part and the aesthetic part will probably spend a lot of time in direct conflict, while the utilitarian part tries to pull the rope sideways.

Game Play

The Muse has much lighter responsibilities than Game Masters of most tabletop RPGs - once you've got the deck, there's no prep-work required - but she guides the players in two ways. One, she has a deck of Story Cards representing essential plot elements, like setting and conflict, which she presents in the right order to send game play through a solid story structure.

Two, she sends the players Visions, depicted on a second deck of Vision Cards. I have cards with interesting pictures from a game called Dixit, but a Taro deck would also work beautifully.

At the beginning of a round, the Muse looks at the next Story Card in her sequence, but doesn’t reveal it to the other players yet. She draws three Vision Cards, and chooses the one she most wants to send the players in this round. She plays her chosen Vision Card, and then sets a timer for thirty seconds (or, preferably, turns a very small hour glass).

Everyone who's active that round (the viewpoint characters, if you will) looks at the Vision card, not yet knowing what exactly it’s for, and spends thirty seconds free associating with the image. I imagine everyone shouting out whatever thoughts come to mind, but the players can also brainstorm by silently writing if they prefer.

Next, the Muse plays a Story Card. The players then use their inspirations from the Vision to fill in concrete details of the story they’re creating.

For example, suppose it’s the Pantheon’s round. The vision the Muse sent was of a rhinoceros covered in feathers, and she’s just played the Inciting Incident card. On the back of the Inciting Incident card are some questions: “How do the gods make their plans known to the Hero? What event acts as The Call To Adventure?” The Pantheon collaborates to answer these questions in a way that they somehow associate with a rhino covered in feathers. Having already established that the Hero’s Quest is to steal the Terrible Weapon from the Evil Emperor, maybe they decide that the Hero will learn of his quest when he happens to be on safari in the same place as the Emperor, sees him test his contraption on an innocent rhino, and recognizes how much destruction will inevitably ensue if the mad old man is allowed to wield such a powerful device.

Once the gods have exerted their mysterious influence, it is time for the Hero to respond. The Muse places Story Cards (usually preceded by a Vision card) that work as leading questions. Example: The Story Card “The Adventuring Party” asks the Hero, “Who will accompany you on your quest? Must you raise an army? Convince one loyal friend to join you? How do you do that?”

Gameplay progresses through chapters, beginning with “Prelude”, in which the Character and Setting are established, and ending with “Resolution”. This is what the game might look like halfway through Chapter Two.

You'll see there are three Vision cards on a single Story card at the end of Chapter One. Most rounds will just get one Vision card, but a few - Internal Coalition, in this case - get some other number. The appropriate number of Vision cards is written at the top right corner of each Story card.

Most chapters consist of four rounds. For example, “The Call” is the chapter in which the Pantheon designs the Hero’s Quest. It includes “Adversary”, “The Hero’s Goal”, “The Inciting Incident”, and “Or Else…” (which asks the gods what incentives they’ll offer if the Hero resists his call to adventure).

In some chapters, a single team plays four rounds back to back. In others, such as The First Challenge, the teams alternate, usually with the gods throwing things at the Hero and the Hero trying to bat them away or catch them to use as projectiles later. (Metaphorically speaking. Maybe.)

Here's the full list of chapters as they currently stand:

  1. Prelude
  2. The Call
  3. The Quest
  4. First Challenge
  5. Second Challenge
  6. Nightmare
  7. Resolution
  8. Ending

And here's all the Story Cards laid out in order. The cards on the far left are just chapter titles, and would be part of the game board if I had one. Each of the other cards represents a round.

During the Challenge and Resolution chapters, the round structure dissolves somewhat, with the Hero and Pantheon duking it out organically. The Muse presents Visions whenever she sees fit, and decides when the Hero has adequately overcome the Pantheon’s obstacles. If she’s not satisfied with the story, the chapter continues.

Divine Intervention

Finally, there is a Divine Intervention option. Any time the Hero's active, he can pray to the gods for a miracle. The gods can choose from two types of responses: “Yes, but…” and “No, and furthermore…”. The Muse, of course, inspires their answers with a Vision. The Hero never gets a straight “yes” when the gods answer his prayers - that would be bad story craft - but sometimes he can trade one problem for another (though of course he might just get extra problems on top of the one he hoped to dodge). Perhaps if he tries bargaining with the gods, they’ll respond to his prayers more favorably? It’s entirely up to the gods.

Your Turn

Here's a spreadsheet with the full list of Story Cards and everything the Muse needs to know to play them. Just write it all down on index cards, or print it out, and get yourself a Tarot deck or some clever alternative.

This version is for alpha testing, and can surely be dramatically improved. If you make up a deck and try this yourself, please do leave comments and let me know how it goes! Feel free to ask questions about the game here or through email (

May you live happily ever after.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

CTAPS for Speedy Fiction, and

I'm trying to learn to write quickly for NaNoWriMo.

I’ve always written very slowly. For NaNoWriMo, I’ll need to write 50,000 words in November. That’s an average of 1667 words per day. To me, that’s a lot of words.

Since I’ve started studying fiction (a month or two ago)*, I’ve become convinced that no matter how much theory I pack into my head, I’m not going to see much improvement until I’ve written a bunch. I don’t think this because of the standard writing advice, which claims competence in writing happens after a million words. I don’t buy that claim.**

But efficient practice requires fast feedback loops. One way or another, feedback loops in writing will consist of words. So to get fast feedback loops, I need to write words quickly. That’s not the same as writing a bunch of words, but it does result in a bunch of words.

I’ve tried to practice writing quickly in three ways: Daily free writing, one exercise a day from Story Starters, and one kata cycle a day from Writer Kata. I did free writing for about three months, Story Starters for about three weeks, and I’ve so far done Writers Kata for about a week.

The first two methods didn’t do much for my speed, but Writer Kata is working.

Every day, or almost every day, I perform one “kata cycle”. A kata cycle is a total of ten writing prompts.

  1. The first four prompts ask you to write a sentence: “Write a sentence containing a metaphor describing a walk through a snow storm.”
  2. The next three prompts ask you to write a paragraph: “Write a paragraph where an argument breaks out in an inappropriate place.”
  3. Then there are two prompts for “sketches”, essentially tiny fictions with little or no plot that are all about description. “Write a sketch, containing dialogue, describing two women who find a baby in a basket next to the river.”
  4. Finally, there’s a story prompt: “Write a story, containing mono no aware, where a Roman boy walks through a bloody battlefield somewhere in the middle East.”

You gain experience points for completing kata, and you can spend experience points to skip prompts you don’t like. The prompts change every day - they’re user-generated and then curated, and you can gain XP by creating prompts that get accepted - but the form is always the same. Four sentences, three paragraphs, two sketches, and a story. You can also gain XP by making your writing public.

A week ago, it took me three hours to complete a kata cycle. Three days ago, it took me one hour. Today, it took me twenty-eight minutes.

Why is this working?

First of all, there’s a warm up. By the time I’m actually writing a story, my mind’s already worked itself into a creative mode, and I’m not paralyzed by a blank sheet of paper. It’s a lot easier to write the first sentence when it’s the only sentence. So I start with pressure almost as low as in free writing, and only increase the pressure after establishing momentum.

Secondly, the existence of a constant form allows me to time myself meaningfully, and therefore to know whether I’m progressing and by how much.

I’ve tried timing simple word count while free writing or doing other writing exercises, but that doesn’t seem to work as well. By timing free writing, the thing I’m actually practicing is putting any kind of word whatsoever on the page. I have written whole paragraphs that say “dog dog dog…” just to keep my pen moving. Yes, it teaches me to get words on paper - and that’s proved somewhat useful - but the skill fails to transfer the moment it matters at all what the words are.

By timing other kinds of writing exercises, the thing I’m actually practicing is filling the paper with words related to that specific prompt. That sounds good at first, but there are two problems. One, I’m not practicing completing the prompt. In fact, I might be practicing blabbering on well past where the end of the story should have been, which may be actively counterproductive. Also, if I try to solve this by “completing as many exercises as possible in an hour” and my exercises vary a lot in form, then my exercise counts by day aren’t comparable.

Maybe on Monday I completed five exercises that were about as difficult as “describe ten different ways of killing someone with a helium balloon”, while on Tuesday I completed only one exercise, but the exercise was “write five sketches, each depicting a different character learning to ice skate for the first time”. Did I write faster on Monday, or on Tuesday? Writing speed isn't as straightforward as it may seem at first.

Timing simple word count isn’t the only way of measuring “how fast I write”, and I suspect it’s not the best way. I don’t know how many words I wrote in my last kata cycle, and I don’t care very much. I’m not exactly practicing writing words. I’m practicing writing sentences, paragraphs, sketches, and stories. I’m practicing imagining and then immediately articulating ten completely unrelated fictional circumstances as quickly as possible, with increasing amounts of story content as I progress through the cycle.

Timing simple word count trains brute speed, while kata cycles train both brute speed and creative agility. The thing that slows me down is something like, “I hold onto my current thought too tightly, and use my attention to perfect it instead of to capture it on paper and flow forward to the next thought.” When I’m fixated on one thought, quickly writing it down results in a few words, followed by a lot of staring at the page and thinking of other ways to arrange the words, or other ways to express the same thought. When I can have a fluid stream of thoughts, quickly writing each down as it happens results in a lot of words.

The third reason Writers Kata works is that there are fast feedback loops within individual kata. This is why I’ve been able to develop a specific mental motion that lets me write quickly. There’s a feeling of searching for exactly the right word to use, or exactly the right idea to have. If I realize I’ve just spent thirty seconds searching for exactly the right word to use in Sentence One, then if I feel the same pausing, searching, weighing sensation while writing Sentences Two, Three, or Four, I’ll match it up immediately with the mistake still hanging in short term memory.

So now I have a speed-writing Cognitive Trigger-Action Plan: If I notice a pausing, searching, weighing sensation while trying to write quickly, then I’ll write down whatever thought I’m having and run with it.

I've needed to add an extra CTAP to support the last that goes, “If I feel worried that the thing I wrote down doesn’t make sense, I’ll move on anyway.” Today I wrote the sentence, “My toes tingled with cold, and my boots bit the snow.” My boots bit the snow? I thought. What the hell is that? And then I noticed I was worrying that the thing I wrote made no sense, so I moved on.

I’ll need further speed-writing skills to complete a 50,000 word novel in a month, which I expect will involve running with ideas at the level of large story arc and character. Developing those is much of why I want to do NaNoWriMo in the first place. With any luck, the relevant mental motions will prove similar to the ones I’m learning from the kata cycles.

*I haven't been blogging a lot because I've been studying fiction, because I'm tired of trying to teach things in the form of non-fiction, because the things I want to teach involve imagined experiences, which are best conveyed through fiction.

**It seems that how you practice matters at least as much as how much you practice, and I don’t expect that the people experiencing the “competence after a million words” phenomenon were practicing very well, since people practice poorly by default. It’s not going to take me a million words to become a competent fiction writer. Furthermore, given that I think more than ten percent of published novelists have written greater than ten novels worth of words in their lives, and I consider less than one in ten randomly selected novels to include “competent” writing, writing a million words is not sufficient for competence. So I’d be focused on more than just “writing a bunch of words”, even if a million words were my goal.