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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Sharing a World, Part II

Devotees of mathematics professor Richard Garfield's trading card sensation, Magic: The Gathering, know that their game is more than a set of rules, of turn phases, of Power and Toughness ratings, of special Upkeep requirements, and the value of rare cards. In Magic, rickety card tables and smoky gaming dens morph into a magical world where players step into the boots and robes of powerful wizards that summon fantastical beasts, cast devastating spells, and craft wondrous artifacts that protect, enlighten, rend, and kill.

For such Magic: The Gathering gamers, it is the artwork depicted on a card, as well as the lore scrawled beneath it, that comprises the wonder of the Magic world and all it has to offer. It was this allure that prompted authors Doug Beyer and Ari Marmell to not only play Magic, but receive the enviable position of getting paid to expand it.

"Magic was my hobby long before it was my job," said Doug Beyer, author of Alara Unbroken, a recent addition to the Planeswalkers series of Magic novels that explores the ramifications of Alara's five separate worlds merging into one. "Before I joined Wizards of the Coast in 2000, I played and read about Magic obsessively in college, playing it with a circle of friends who would sometimes choose to squeeze in 'one more game' rather than make it to class. And before I joined Magic’s creative team, when I was a coder for the web site, I worked off-the-clock as a writer of flavor text for the cards. I was gobbling up the ins and outs of mages and spells and planes and planeswalking long before I knew it would lead to an opportunity to write an official Magic novel."

Not content to simply play Magic, Beyer has concocted a term for those who do more than sit at a card table crunching Attack phase statistics. "Ha!" Beyer exclaimed when I mentioned the battles waged in my imagination while playing a game of Magic. "You, my friend, are a fellow Vorthos, the term we use in my 'Savor the Flavor' column--check it out every Wednesday on refer to someone who lives for the story that the game cooks up in your imagination. It is a mark of pride. Of course I enjoy such games—even early on I imagined the parched, mana-starved earth left behind after I cast a devastating Armageddon spell, or the dark stirrings of the eldritch Umbilicus repeatedly calling my Bone Shredder minion back to its aetheric womb."

Hovering near the other end of the spectrum which measure Magic fanaticism was Ari Marmell. Having written a variety of fiction for Wizards of the Coast such as freelance work set in the Dungeons & Dragons universe, a short story for the Eberron anthology Tales of the Lost War, and a novel that was converted into the weekly Black Crusade web serial, Marmell had accrued plenty of Wizards writing experience. What he lacked by his own admission was a familiarity with Magic itself, having played less than a dozen games before receiving the opportunity to write a Magic novel.

Contrarily to what one might suspect, it was this unfamiliarity that prompted Wizards editor Phil Athans to nominate Marmell as a strong candidate to help launch the new Planeswalker series, a sub-series focusing on the enigmatic Planeswalkers, beings able to traverse Magic's many planes of existence. Marmell's project: Agents of Artifice, an adventure that delved into the Planeswalker Jace Beleren's struggle to free himself from the Infinite Consortium, an empire controlled by a ruthless Planeswalker.

"When [Wizards] set out to begin the Planeswalker line, they wanted to target the book not only at existing Magic fans, but also other fantasy readers who might not be familiar with Magic," said Marmell. "As such, they wanted a new writer, one who could bring a new perspective and style to the book. I couldn’t speculate as to what it was specifically about my writing style that they liked, but Phil and the other editors offered me the chance to jump on board."

Properly introducing Planeswalkers to readers required that the authors flesh out a variety of planes of existence many that might have been obscure to even the most dedicated Magic player. Telling the tale of Alara's reassembling was Doug Beyer's assignment, one which, not unlike a planeswalker, simply popped up in front of him.

"I had a pretty good 'in,' in that I’m part of Magic R&D’s creative team, the group of people responsible for building the worlds and storylines behind the game for Wizards of the Coast," explained Beyer. "We needed an author to write the story of the Alara setting, and I felt like I needed to write a book, so it worked itself out. I didn’t quite assign it to myself—it wasn’t quite that nepotistic—but I was definitely in the right place at the right time."

Once the assignments had been accepted, Beyer and Marmell began preparation for their forthcoming forays. Wizards was intent on the Planeswalker line becoming a success, which required extensive meetings and research for all involved. Ari Marmell wanted to ensure he was fully submerged in all things Magic, so Wizards flew him to their headquarters in Seattle for an all-day meeting with Phil Athans, several editors, and the majority of the creative and managerial teams. Upon completion of the crash course, talk turned to plans for Magic's line of fiction, brainstorming for Marmell's novel, and a hefty stack of material to aid in research.

"Even before I flew up there, they sent me substantial written material on some of the line’s major characters and settings, and I had even more of those to take home with me after the meeting," said Marmell.

Pivotal pieces of Alara Unbroken had already been established in the Alara style guide--an annual compilation of writings and illustrations that detail the plans of a particular year--before Doug Beyer took the project's reins. Of course, it is usually the journey rather than the destination that proves most exciting, and Beyer received plenty of opportunity to outline the particular story he wanted to tell -- opportunity he enthusiastically embraced.

"Since I had helped shape those characters and worlds as part of my job, they certainly didn’t feel thrust on me; I was chomping at the bit to tell a story in Alara," said Beyer. "Plus this was the first time the character of Ajani had appeared in prose, so I was able to create some of his motivations, build his voice, and set down some detail about his life."

Outlining can be a helpful way of charting the course of a story, but a narrow outline that doesn't allow for new ideas and revisions is like being trapped between four walls that continually move closer and closer together. Fortunately, Ari Marmell left himself plenty of wiggle room for details that came along as the story evolved.

"Paldor came about initially because I just needed someone leading the Ravnica cell of Tezzeret’s Infinite Consortium," said Marmell. "Once I knew I had the niche to fill, I just set about trying to create an interesting character—someone who wasn’t just 'Tezzeret lite,' or 'generic bastard #3'—to fill it."

While the outline wasn't too tight, it couldn't be too broad, either. Wizards required a clear understanding of where a story was going at all times, which required Ari Marmell to think as much through as he could. According to him, the most difficult part of the process was converting his outlines, which he says typically consist of rambling notes and fragments, into something comprehensible and self-explanatory. Once that phase was complete, a series of exchanges between Wizards and Marmell occurred. Wizards would ask for clarification or a more thorough explanation, Marmell would provide it, and another exchange would occur until the details were settled on both sides of the table.

Following completion of outlining, Beyer and Marmell hunkered down to begin the process of crafting their adventures. Most writers have daily goals that must be met before they feel that a day's work has been completed. Beyer adopts a strict policy of 1000 words a day. "I come home from work, have dinner, and then lock myself in my bedroom with my laptop," said Beyer. "I don’t come out until I am a thousand words closer to my goal. That usually takes me from about eight PM till eleven."

Marmell's goal is similar, though he is unabashed in admitting he enjoys a fair bit of goofing around before, during, and after his daily goal--a word count of 2000 words--has been reached. Like many writers, Marmell views his minimum as just that: a goal that must be reached, but can always be surpassed. "Under most circumstances, I [wake] up, putter around for an hour or two—check e-mail, look at various websites, all the time-wasting stuff that the modern age has brought us—and then get to writing." Should he desire a break or three, Marmell indulges, then gets back to business.

Of course, what good are several thousand words without compelling personalities to drive them forward? Because Alara consisted of five separate worlds, Alara Unbroken would need to populate each shard-world with enough characters for Beyer to suitably explore how the inhabitants dealt with being part of a whole. To complement protagonist Ajani, Beyer enlisted the aid of several side characters detailed in the Alara style guide; others were featured on Magic cards of their own; and still others were spun from the author's imagination.

Ari Marmell's Agents of Artifice novel would also feature many notable Planeswalker personalities, many of which were devoid of details. Planeswalkers Jace Beleren, Tezzeret, and Liliana Vess were mere names on a list when Marmell received them from Wizards. Simple character sketches that revealed basics such as who they are and where they came from were provided as starting pointers; inflating them with personalities was his objective.

"A lot of details were up to me," Marmell said. "For instance, while I knew that Tezzeret had to be in charge of some sort of large organization, the details of the Infinite Consortium, and its methods of operation, were mine. The dragon Nicol Bolas is also a preexisting character. I wasn’t specifically asked to include him, but as my story developed, he wound up becoming a minor but integral part of it."

At any stage of the process, there are hurdles which must be jumped. As is to be expected, Beyer and Marmell each had their fair share of difficulties. In Marmell's case, the greatest difficulty was creative differences, though he understands that such is often the case when one works in a pre-established setting.

"Note that this is not me pointing fingers or saying that anyone did anything improper," said Marmell. "When the company and the Magic development team are both so heavily invested in the success of the line, it’s almost inevitable that what they, or my editor, are looking for from the book isn’t always going to match what I’ve come up with. Between the first and second draft, I probably rewrote close to a quarter of the word count. Most of these weren’t overall story changes, but more about changing specific scenes or details—focus more on this character, less on that particular sub-plot, that sort of thing."

Beyer's difficulty was one with which most writers can empathize: too many characters, too little time. A number of side characters that Beyer found compelling had to have their stage time diminished or cut entirely for the sake of the main story. One diminishment was the side story of Sarkhan Vol, a Planeswalker who searches out dragons and battles them to determine their worthiness of his respect.

"I could have spent an entire book on the story of Sarkhan Vol," said Beyer, "and how his quest leads him into dark, sanity-threatening territory, and how that challenges his beliefs and forces him to forge a new path for himself. But for the sake of time and clarity, I had to focus on the main storyline and keep minor characters minor, and that was the hardest part."

Eventually, the difficulties will be conquered and the revisions--the many, many revisions--will be finished. The end result for Doug Beyer and Ari Marmell: books of which each author is rightfully proud.

"I’m really happy with the book’s accessibility to both Magic fans and new readers alike," reflected Marmell on Agents of Artifice. "Serving two distinct audiences like that isn’t easy, and the fact that the book does it so well—that’s based on feedback, not just my own egotism!—is gratifying in the extreme."

"This is a strange thing to say," began Beyer regarding Alara Unbroken, "but I’m proudest of the pacing. I consider the book to be hard to put down, as it’s an ever-building series of cliffhangers. It’s not a perfect book, but from page one it moves, driving you forward to the end."

Fortunately for Beyer, Marmell, and the legions of players and readers, the appeal of Magic: The Gathering will endure long after Alara divides again, and the Infinite Consortium has faded into tales of legend. But what exactly is the X factor that makes Magic so enduring?

"The most obvious answer would be simply to say that the game-play appeals to a lot of people, but honestly, I think it’s more than that," said Marmell. "Because its premise is based around the notion of characters and creatures from an enormous variety of worlds, MTG is able to cater to the tastes and interests of almost every fantasy fan. If you’re looking for the politics of urban fantasy, you have Ravnica; if you want the bushido feel of feudal Japan, there’s Kamigawa; for horrific dark fantasy, the shard of Grixis or—for a different style of horror—the Phyrexian storylines; and so forth.

"And there’s no end to it; if someone has a brilliant idea that doesn’t easily fit into an existing setting, just create a new one. When you add to that the fact that players of the game are portraying the Planeswalkers—the powerful, chosen few who know the truth behind reality—and what you’ve got is a setup that potentially appeals to almost anyone."


Adele said...

I was never very good at this but I still have folders full of neatly laid out and well organised cards and a couple of decks made up, just in case.

raul said...

honestly, most magic players could care less about the story and it makes any attempt to tell one a hollow mission of spinning your own wheel to please yourself. the game is crunching numbers and limiting possibilities...not endless stories and limitless possibility.

there have been some decent writers attached to the fiction, but that's even more reason to view this as a waste of good talent.

Shannon said...

I used to play a lot in my younger days, but I had no interest in the story at all. Back then it just used to be about who had the best deck and quite often the rarest cards. While I do agree that often the matches had great imagery in my mind I do not believe a novel would be an improvement on that.
The writers are better of writing an original piece and not trying to cash in on a known brand.

quannage said...

Actually, I beg to differ. I am a huge fan of MTG and have been for the past 15+ years. As much as I enjoy the actualo game, I enjoy the stories and creative elemtns of the game even more. About half the people I play with are the same way. In fact, I once got a whole class of teenagers into MTG because they liked the art on the cards.
Haven't you seen an interesting or powerful chard (especially a planeswalker or legendary creature) and wondered why that card got the abilities it had? why did Agrus Kos get his abilities and not some other red/white Boros card?
And I have debates with players all of the time over who the most powerful planeswalker is.
I'm an avid reader and a novelist myself, and my favorite Magic: the gathering series of novels is The Kamigawa series.

Seriously, without all of that cool art and backstory, MTG becomes just a more complicated YuGiOh or DuelMasters. and who wants that?


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