Writing Weird: How we make inventive horror in the Fallen London Universe

HannahFBG

Registered Developer
Dec 30, 2019
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Our Narrative Director @ChrisFBG put together these tips for our in-house and freelance writers. He'll be around this week to take your questions about games writing!

FL10 - Poor Edward.png

People often struggle with writing weirdness that fits a Fallen London tone. When you get weirdness wrong it manifests as prose that's full of foreboding and light on substance. It can be mystifying and unsatisfying. Here's some guidance on how to approach it instead:


1. Be certain

We write specific weirdness, not generic. Know where this bit of weirdness fits into your world. Tie it in tight.

Bad: "The Victorian Empire can manipulate time."

Better: "When Queen Victoria led London into the heavens, she conquered the King of Hours and seized his treasuries. Now, she dispenses hours like bursaries to her favoured servants."


2. Write the symptoms, not the cause

The player or audience is confronted with the symptoms of the weirdness, not its root cause. Address what's tangible about it: what it's doing, what danger it's causing, what opportunity it has created.

Examples: The use of hours across the Empire has created timekeeping discrepancies. The newly-formed Horological Office is responsible for ensuring that the time is correct in every corner of the Empire.

To diagnose these symptoms, ask yourself questions. You're distilling something abstract into something immediate. Keep asking questions until you get from the former to the latter.

When you've written a few different manifestations of the weirdness in your story, people will start putting the symptoms together and working out the root cause. And they'll feel the satisfaction of having done so.

3. Be firm, visceral, and vivid

Situate yourself in the character's senses and situation. Always think how the weirdness harms, impedes, advantages, or eludes them.

If you're struggling, take a step back and look at the scene as a whole. How could the weirdness affect it?

Make the players’ action specific and provocative. "Examine the skull" is bland "Reach into the skull's left eye socket" is not.

4. Things to Avoid


Over-complex effects: Most good weirdness can be summarised in a single sentence. You need to be able to communicate what's happening easily.

Repeating the same point in different ways to try and clarify it: This probably means you don't have a firm grasp of what you're trying to communicate. One image, potently expressed , then move on. (If this is happening, simplify the weirdness or ask yourself more questions to dig into its symptoms)

Special effects and words that are warning signs your idea is too vague include: shadows, radiance, smoke, darkness, visions, whispers, weird eye effects (often, weird eye effects – like glowing eyes, red eyes, etc – are signs you haven't got a better idea. You CAN do interesting things with weird eyes but they need a clear spin)

Hedging words like: really, quite, somewhat, almost, great, strange, odd. (Great is used so much it's become bland. Instead use a word that suggests size AND threat or size AND composition. Vast, enormous, cavernous, monolithic, gargantuan, etc. Or use a comparison.)
 
Last edited:
Nov 24, 2019
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A warm hello and welcome! Big fan of Failbetter here, and in fact any dark weirdness in alternative settings in games.

Great tips so far on writing - they'll certainly help on my end. (Having already edited this post to remove hedging words employed by habit!)

I have a question for you on the subject of villains. As a big nerd and RPG fan, I noticed long ago that White Wolf and other table-top RPG makers would do this thing where instead of directly referencing the "super big evil" antagonist, they'd keep them extremely behind the scenes. Not only that, but they was always the introduction of antagonist at a low hierarchical level. It was almost as if there was a forced level of granularity to the pyramid of baddies. You aren't dealing with the prime evil and source of all horror, but rather a 2nd Lieutenant of Mostly Bad Stuff in the sub-department of malicious-doings. And by pumping this one lower-level minion up to huge status and impact, it made the unmentioned higher-ups seem even worse and vastly more intimidating. In that keeping the real villain just off-screen they are made more terrifying by the imagining and implication, rather than direct encounter.

Do you find the same to be true? Second, related question. How do you go about keeping measuring the balance between vague hinting at a level of detail just behind the scenes without running into troubles of vaguery and mixed threads, ala the TV show Lost?
 
Jan 14, 2020
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Greetings Failbetter team. Always loved your writing.

As a tabletop DM, this is great writing advice. Thank you.

As a fan of Fallen London and Disco Elysium, I have to say: I'd love to see an adventure game/visual novel hybrid in the Fallen London universe. Perhaps an ongoing title. Is this sort of thing something you've considered? Are other changes afoot for your titles going forward?
 
Jan 14, 2020
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Failbetter has gone on record saying their next game will:
  1. Play differently than anything they've done before;
  2. Feature rich narratives;
  3. Include choice and consequence;
  4. Be creatively risky
Disco Elysium-like confirmed!

People often struggle with writing weirdness that fits a Fallen London tone. When you get weirdness wrong it manifests as prose that's full of foreboding and light on substance. It can be mystifying and unsatisfying.
Are there any contemporary authors of non-interactive fiction who write weirdness in the Fallen London vein? Do you have any reading recommendations? On Reddit, Chris refers to inspirations, but I'm more curious about read-alikes or authors whose newest releases you await with clenched fists. Alternately, do you consciously stay away from works that remind you of your own?
 
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Jan 14, 2020
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Failbetter has gone on record saying their next game will:
  1. Play differently than anything they've done before;
  2. Feature rich narratives;
  3. Include choice and consequence;
  4. Be creatively risky
Disco Elysium-like confirmed!



Are there any contemporary authors of non-interactive fiction who write weirdness in the Fallen London vein? Do you have any reading recommendations? On Reddit, Chris refers to inspirations, but I'm more curious about read-alikes or authors whose newest releases you await with clenched fists. Alternately, do you consciously stay away from works that remind you of your own?
Very interesting.

I could look forward to something different and risky from Failbetter. Very much looking forward to more darkly weird writing. And new and different game play is always welcome.
 
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ChrisFBG

Registered Developer
Jan 8, 2020
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@jpishgar – this is an amazing question and has a lot of different angles to it. And if there's anything I like talking about more than writing, it's tabletop RPGs.

/rolls up sleeves

Right!

I think that advice you're talking about, to keep the ultimate villain offscreen until the end, is a drastic response to a recurring problem in TTRPGs: If the players encounter the villain, the villain will probably die. Unless the GM cheats to save them, which will cause bad feeling.

This is, in turn, a manifestation of a wider issue common in TTRPGs: _when one player (usually called the GM) is trying to impose the sort of rigid plot seen in other media onto a fundamentally collaborative activity._ This isn't a problem in all storytelling in all media.

I'm going to divide the response into a section focussing on TTRPGs (because I think it sheds light on wider issues, and issues relevant to videogames) and another on writing in other mediums.

Villains in videogames

In TV and novels keeping a villain alive isn't a problem. Writers can always stage things so the villain survives encounters with the heroes.

In videogames it's also not so much a problem – we have a lot of control over the player's experience, and so can ensure the villain survives. Instead, in videogames the problem is "Can we keep the villain alive without the player getting sick of our bullshit." There's only so many times a villain can collapse a ceiling on you to flee, or leap onto a helicopter and get away.

The idea that keeping the villain offstage makes them feel bigger and more significant is, I think, false. The advantages of a villain is that they can have relationships with the protagonists. They put a face to adversity. But they can't do either of those things if the players never encounter them. If the first time the player interacts with a villain is at the end, don't expect it to be powerful.

There are ways around this. Dark Souls makes the final battle against Gwyn meaningful despite it being the first time you meet him in person. It does this by making the entire game – the entire world – about the consequences of Gwyn's decisions. So by the time you meet him, it's impossible not to have an opinion on him.

A villain is more effective when the player can build a relationship with them. There are many ways for that to happen. It might be a face-to-face encounter, it might be seeing their broadcasts and interacting with their followers, it might be having to deal with the consequences of their actions. The important thing is that the players feel they know the villain.

A while ago, I wondered if the definition of a villain is "Someone who thinks a complex situation has a simple solution, and acts on it." Thanos in the MCU is the perfect example: He believes there's too much suffering in the universe, that it is a result of scarcity, and that the solution is simple: to halve the number of people (through the simplest act possible – snapping his fingers!)

That doesn't cover all villainous types. Some people do revel in cruelty, or merely care about their own power. They tend not to be enormously interesting as villains go, though. (With big exceptions, like the Joker). But I think it helps provide a starting point to make villains that the players can understand, who have more depth than just being a roadblock.

I find it helps to consider "villain" is a role in a story. Its a label you apply to a character. But it doesn't make a character compelling or interesting on its own.

Villains in TTRPGs

A lot of GM advice casts the GM as the person responsible for everyone else's fun, for providing a grand story to sweep everyone along. But there are a half-dozen imaginative brains at the table, everyone is responsible for everyone's fun, and the story flows better when it arises from the collaboration of player actions and GM responses.

TTRPGs can also assume that 'plot' is 'the thing the villain is doing', so that you can fight and defeat the villain at the end. If you want to take the approach of having an ultimate villain in a TTRPG, I would recommend looking for a system that supports that.

Modiphius' 2d20 system, for example, gives the GM a resource called Threat. The GM could spend it to complicate scenes, and boost and preserve their NPCs... as long as they have points left! And the GM largely earns Threat as a result of player actions, so there's a sense of fairness and transparency to the system.

In D&D once a villain reaches a certain level, they can probably access resources to raise themselves from the dead, makes clones, teleport contingencies and all sorts of freaky loopholes. The difficulty becomes how you eventually circumvent those in the final confrontation, the power differential with PCs, and the fact that all those assumptions baked into the rules will also end up applying to the heroes.

If you'd rather not take a mechanical approach, I'd recommend looking at your treatment of villains in the game.

Is a single villain what you really need? Villains put personality to adversity, which is good, but they aren't the only cause of it. Organisations can be great villains (and are made up of individual people, any of whom can be a villain.).

Social systems can be even better villains. An empire doesn't collapse because you kill its Emperor (despite what Star Wars says). Emperors die all the time, and empires are specifically designed to survive it. The same is true of bureaucracies, companies, and religions.

I keep talking about how TTRPGS are fundamentally collaborative, but I honestly believe it's their biggest strength. I'd suggest that the best villains in them emerge naturally, when your players respond strongly to a character. If they die, they die. The death of a villain impacts the world and can create new adversity of its own.

I think your players will tell you who the villains are. If you populate your world with interesting characters pursuing their objectives vigorously and characterfully, and ensure that their objectives conflict with the players', you will have no shortage of them.
 

ChrisFBG

Registered Developer
Jan 8, 2020
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@Hurgus Burgus
Are there any contemporary authors of non-interactive fiction who write weirdness in the Fallen London vein? Do you have any reading recommendations?
A few! Inevitably I will forget lots of great examples, for which I apologise.

Cassandra Khaw: Cass has written for both Fallen London and Sunless Skies, and has a sumptuous writing style that crawls under your skin. She's a master of unsettling horror, and has written novels including Hammers on Bone and Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef.

Erin Morganstern: Who wrote The Night Circus (which we made a tie-in promotional game for, back in the day, with Yasmeen Khan doing the writing). Erin has just published a new novel called The Starless Sea. She writes evocative settings with luscious prose that inexorably draws you in.

Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan: His novels The Gutter Prayer and recently released The Silent Saint are fantasy novels set in a baroque, gothic city with men made of candles, alchemical environmental disasters, and living, malevolent bells. I feel like if you like the flavour of the weirdness in Fallen London you'll click with these.

Amal el-Mohtar and Max Gladstone's This is How we Lose the Time War. I've only read a bit of this so far, and on the surface very different from our stuff – but the personal, oblique take on a high sci-fi concept I think will appeal to fans of our stuff. Amal also did some writing for Sunless Sea (on the much-beloved Pigmote Isle)!

I've not read any China Mieville yet, but people very often tell us that our work reminds them of his books, particularly his city of New Crobuzon.

If other people have come across books that Would be a good fit for fans of our work, I would love to hear about them!
 

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