Tips for Games for Writers – The CR Trap

Disclaimer: I thought I’d take a new turn with this post. I’ve put out a handful of Games for Writers articles before in which I talk about specific games that promote good writing in large or small ways. However, I’ve never written any warnings to budding fantasy writers about the (many) bad influences gaming can have on their writing. Thus, here we are, with the first of my Tips for Games for Writers. Enjoy!

So, in this month between finishing War of Exiles and starting its content edit, I’ve pretty heavily picked up my gaming again. Not because I need to play video games, but because, in the comfortable glow of only having an outline for a different story to casually chip away at, why not?

As if I need to have goals now, however, I’m not playing anything new; I’ve instead gone back to super old games I never got 100% in (at least until Titanfall hits the 360). Examples of how I’ve been wasting my time: Fallout 3, Beyond Good & Evil, Half-Life 2. Essentially, I’m trying desperately to complete some of my favorites before this generation officially ends for me in September with Destiny.

But anyway, my current gaming goals aren’t the article here. The article—and my particular need to write it—came while playing Fallout 3. I was on an alien space ship, my character, Norman Osborn, discovering that he’d been made into a cyborg by his alien captors (I seriously just took the Cyborg perk [unnecessary roleplay FTW]), was raging, hurling Plasma Grenades everywhere. It was a good time.

Until I reached the higher level aliens. They clearly had shielding that made them stronger, and although it didn’t feel like it made perfect sense, they were so much more powerful than their unshielded buddies that they cut right into my grenade-hurling good times. Fun turned into plugging what felt like way, way too many shots into the same, stringy alien with my extremely powerful Firelance until it finally died.

Which absolutely made me reflect on countless other such moments—particularly in Bethesda games, but really present in any RPG; you encounter a level 20 enemy while you’re level 1 and, OMFG, you’d better run because that enemy, no matter how disarmingly huggable, is just not going down.

And this, of course, reminded me of when I started writing and how the phenomenon of the high level puppy dog not even feeling my rocket launcher shots—what I now present here as The CR Trap—impacted my work for the worse.

First, What’s “CR”?

If you’re unaware, “CR” stands for “Challenge Rating”; it’s a term I picked up from D&D and it’s the result of an equation that dictates how strong a monster is in relation to all of the players’ characters (a CR 5 is a well matched challenge for a team of four level 5 characters). To put it simply, they’re the decided strength of a monster or character, assigned to supplement a gaming experience.

And often found in every other kind of storied media. Movies? Comics? Books? They all have Challenge Ratings, intentionally or not.

Now, What’s the CR Trap?

It immediately sounds like I’m saying Challenge Ratings are bad; they’re not. They are, however, a gaming tool that doesn’t apply well to writing when they’re misused. When used well, Challenge Ratings are fantastic tools for making more enjoyable experiences (comics are notorious for having Challenge Ratings that dictate how much a normal human can withstand for the sake of being more enjoyable to readers [the Punisher and Batman are two great examples of characters who can take an unrealistic amount of punishment and still come out fine because the audience wants them to (and before you start raging, I’m sorry, but Batman would’ve died the very first time Solomon Grundy punched him 30 feet to smack into a wall JLU style; not being abrasive here—just realistic)]).

However, Challenge Ratings can very, very easily become a personal meta that feels unrealistic to everyone else and that cheapens your writing. To clarify here, establishing clear rules for your characters (they’re all vampires or some other race that has what I think of as “the durability suite” of super powers [moderate super strength, speed, agility and endurance]) isn’t what I mean. What I mean is (perhaps unwittingly) setting rules beyond that to further ensure the safety of your characters. What I mean is you’ve grown up with video games for so long that your human characters can illogically take more than a single gunshot wound and still be fine; against all reason, they can get shot eight times and still scurry behind a waste-high wall and meta-heal enough to rush on to some final objective before ultimately surviving. That is the CR Trap in its most basic and universal form.

However, it absolutely goes deeper than that and gets complex enough that I probably shouldn’t be presenting it here without way more explanation of its different facets, but whatever. Let’s have a good time instead!

The RPG-Forged CR Trap and Me

If you’re anything like me, you’re a fantasy writer who grew up on RPG’s. Even if they didn’t heavily influence your writing in any way, it’s a safe bet that you still carry accidental hints of your writing lineage in your work. Maybe your characters are more stylized. Maybe they have more elaborate weapons or you naturally gravitate to more action-oriented plots.

Or maybe… you’ve actually written the scene where the protagonist faces off against a giant monster and, against all logic, the protagonist comes out unscathed… and defeats the monster by hitting it only once. This is the CR Trap I grew up with, forged on the RPG’s inability to realistically portray violence.

And maybe you’re thinking, “What? Seriously? There’s tons of violence in the RPG’s I play.” Not debatable. However, think about a turn-based RPG like Bravely Default. Your characters have their turns—they run up, execute their attacks and then fall back. The enemy they hit reels for a moment, and then falls very cleanly back into the same stance they had before. It’s a small moment and the tiniest lack of realism, easy to keep out of your work.

Until you see it hundreds… of thousands of times without realizing it. It may sound silly, but consider that possibly, without realizing it was happening, you were trained by your turn-based RPG to see that moment—the waiting enemy, the perfect sword strike, the reel and recovery—as a reasonable approximation of a battle with a vicious monster. And, of course, you know that’s not how the fight would actually go, but it is, perhaps, the very first thing you think of when you try to picture said battle.

And now imagine that that single moment… is actually part of a suite of misconceptions video games have ingrained in you.

  • Like the misconception—provided by a truly awesome and high quality game like Skyrim, for example—that attacking a monster might not illicit any physical reaction whatsoever (because Stunning is tied to Critical Hits and certain moves to make it a gameplay feature).
  • Or the idea that an enemy would pose and act for visual flare, never attacking in a way that sacrificed aesthetics for brutal, logical efficiency.
  • Or the subliminal idea that when battles start, all environmental elements are stripped away and replaced with a large, flat expanse as to not impede the action.

I could go on until I round back to the concept of a Level 1 Barbarian fleeing from a Level 99 Tribble, but if you love video games as much as I do, you’ll know all of these incongruities yourself. Because you always have.

The CR Trap’s Effect on Your Fantasy Writing

I’ll be completely honest with you—I did not catch myself falling into the trap until I finished the first draft of War of Exiles. No lie, rereading the Prologue, in which my protagonist has an encounter with a monster (geez, I even used “encounter”), was actually what sparked the need to rewrite the entire book. It was a horrible, horrible mess of a fight because I basically wrote a turn-based RPG encounter. Okay, it wasn’t that bad, but… I’ll strike off a list for you.

  • The monster, though harmed, did not suffer any serious damage or react to said damage with anything more than a roar and reel before recovering all of its mobility and faculties. Essentially, it was only pretend harmed.
  • The monster, though intelligent, had a collection of visually impressive but extremely useless attacks and abilities that it used slowly and illogically (classically ensnaring my protagonist and slowly pulling him towards itself… instead of immediately running up and killing him while he was helpless on the ground).
  • The battle started in the center of town, perfectly and unrealistically large for a small town and absolutely devoid of any obstructions aside from one decorative fountain that was effectively cut out the moment the fight started.

The only thing I didn’t do was have Lethe and the monster stand facing each other, weapons ready, posed and breathing as action bars filled up.

It’s odd to remember how much I relished writing the original scene too; it wasn’t just that I thought it was passable—I thought it was cool and exciting.

And that’s what the CR Trap does; it ironically lowers the Challenge Rating of your fight scenes by scripting you with the familiar; you feel right at home and comfortable and successful as your character cuts a giant spider’s leg but doesn’t really cut it because reasons. The spider jumps back and strikes again even though it’s gigantic and this is happening in what was just described as a castle courtyard crowded with statues, the spider missing every now-ignored statue because reasons. When the spider strikes  again, it grazes or, despite what should probably be unreal agility, totally misses. Because reasons. Long-ingrained, comfortable reasons.

Getting Out of the Trap

If you feel like you’ve written these kinds of scenes and want to change them, it’s a not at all simple process of going back and thinking very clearly about what’s really happening in your fight scenes. In particular, think about whatever monster or threat your characters are facing and consider something that’s absolutely foreign to video game fodder—what this monster’s individual motivation is. Try to plot how it would advance and how it would attack and stay true to that even if you still come out with a simple “It wants to kill my protagonist,” and especially if you find a complicated, scene-ruining answer like, “This creature would absolutely run away or try to run away if confronted.”

Also, and probably even more essential for combat scenes, don’t simplify your arenas, whether that means not always putting fights in conveniently cleared out “boss rooms,” or not forgetting the table in the center of the room.

But, if there’s one thing I’d suggest above all of this, it’s to put your characters in reasonable, honest danger. If you want your character to fight a giant spider, alone, admit that there’s a fantastic chance that spider (or a reasonably scaled threat for those protagonists who can easily kill a giant spider) will absolutely, ruthlessly, and efficiently kill your protagonist. At the very least, admit and embrace the idea that your characters can face insurmountable dangers in your story, even if thise dangers are never on-screen; that your protagonist isn’t the untouchable badass you usually follow to the end of a video game. To put it simply, write legitimate, suspenseful danger.

And, hey, while you’re at it, also make sure that no other gaming contrivances are plaguing your work (i.e. no fall damage or extremely convenient, nonsensical inventory systems [in particular, none of last gen’s ridiculously standard, “He slipped the weapon onto his back.”]).

Balancing the Trap

It is incredibly comfortable to just stick with the CR Trap and, for the sake of being cool and more appropriate for more audiences, many, many people do stick to it by small degrees; professionally produced stories absolutely follow the mold for the sake of not challenging audiences, who usually don’t really want to be challenged by their favorite characters dying unceremoniously. And that absolutely makes sense.

But in the case of fantasy, even if the average reader doesn’t want a play-by-play on what parts of a monster are sheared off during a fight (and I think the general audience probably doesn’t), any Fantasy-loving adult would be far, far more engrossed with a realistic, high-stakes battle (or chase or hunt). And none of them really want to read the fantasy novel where characters are never actually in danger or where the environment is oddly cleared for every encounter. There’s obviously a balance here and, like all elements of writing, the Challenge Rating meta you set in your work is up to you. But that’s just it—always be mindful of what you’re doing and make it an intentional choice for your story whether or not characters can takes thousands of pounds of knuckled force to the face and still get up.


 This wound up being… so much more involved and complicated of a post than I expected. But, if you enjoyed, I’d love a Comment, Like, and/or Subscription. Regardless, thanks for reading!