Gotta Remember This Trick

So, I’ve been listening to the audio book Hyperion, by Dan Simmons on my commute to and from work, and I just finished on the drive home today.

I liked it a lot, but that’s kinda beside the point.

The book is about a pilgrimage to visit a mysterious site, and each of the pilgrims, in a very Chauceresque fashion, tells the tale of how they came to be on this pilgrimage. It’s through these tales that the future world of the book is laid out for the reader, with each character’s story highlighting different aspects of the far-flung World Web and the Hegemony culture.

This is, in itself, a really neat little conceit, and it does a good job of showing the myriad possibilities of that universe and time. And, as a big-time English Lit geek, any shout-out to Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales gets a big thumbs-up from me.

But Simmons does a couple of other things that really make the book work.

First, he tells you (and the characters) that one of the pilgrims is, in fact, a spy. This is a nice trope, in that it focuses you on the stories each pilgrim tells, sifting it for hints and clues and inconsistencies, for hidden motives and evasions. You go through each story very critically, with attention to detail, because you want to be able to figure out who the spy is before the big reveal. I found that this meant I got a lot more out of each of the tales than I might otherwise have.

Second, and this is golden, the characters decide to tell their stories in order to find the common thread that brought each of them to the pilgrimage.

This is genius, because it makes you compare the stories to each other, looking for common themes. You begin to analyze what each one is saying about personal transformation, hope, faith, control versus freedom, the power and terror of the unknown… All these things. This little trick lets Simmons spin an entire philosophical argument without explicitly talking philosophy. It’s brilliant.

And it’s eminently  lootable.

I think it might be a fun thing to try in a game, telling players that there’s some common element linking different events, and seeing if I can use it to reveal things about the game world and the themes I want in play without having to tell them explicitly. It might even be a good way to generate the themes, having the players that there’s a linking theme, but really letting their discussion and analysis create that theme. Or use the method as the last stage of a shared world creation exercise: once all the elements are in place, generate the themes based on perceived commonalities.

Something to think about and play with.

Anyway, I’m starting on Fall of Hyperion tomorrow.

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