Why Table-War, Why Minotaurs

In The Elf vs The Dwarf Homer the minotaur watches the mysterious dwarven champion beat an elf at a board-game, claiming land on the border of the two races. This is actually the first time we’ve seen land trade hands because of a table-war, but supposedly this happens pretty often. Table-war makes battle abstract, so nations have no reason to avoid conflict. I hope this reflects the futility of war in general and war in the age of computers in particular.

When I started writing what would become The Minotaur’s Board-Game I thought I’d make the minotaur play chess. I gave up because anyone who actually enjoyed chess would see I was talking out my butt. Chess has strategies and a history I couldn’t do justice without loads of research, and research is hard. Plus, even if including chess made the story popular among chess-fans, it would simultaneously limit the audience to mostly chess-fans.

For the same reasons, I wouldn’t include any real game. If I used Poker I’d have to study up or else skilled readers would think “that’s a dumb move” with every play.

One of my inspirations for this story is the anime YuGiOh, in which teens play children’s card-games to save the world. I can appreciate the cheesiness of a card-game ballooning to such high stakes. Unfortunately, while the card-game actually exists in the real world—we call it YuGiOh—the anime TV-show doesn’t follow the real rules. Rules are ignored or invented on the spot to increase tension and let the hero win. The anime invented its own game and still can’t get it quite right.

My solution to these problems is to make a game without stated rules. Table-war is supposed to be a perfectly accurate replacement for war, and war doesn’t have ‘rules’ beyond the laws of physics, so I can put war on a table and it’ll turn out okay.

The good news is I can still make up rules whenever it’s convenient for me. Do I need Homer to look clever? Let him paint his figurines; no rule against that. Do I need Aria to accidentally screw herself over? She can—by adding new rules for one match. I can always retrace my steps and fiddle with rules as I go.

The really good news—for me, not for my characters—is that dwarfs can use the war-simulation to their advantage. In a real war, dwarfs could be outsmarted; the dwarfs called upon demons to win their last war, and it didn’t even work. In table-war the dwarven robot is indomitable, and without real war, there’s nothing any other nation can do about it.

The bad news is that war isn’t always interesting. So far, most table-wars have been won before the match even started: commanders imagine how their opponents will play, and whoever thinks farther ahead wins. A game of chess can flow back and forth; a game of poker can have a twist; most of my table-wars are one-sided. Sometimes table-wars can showcase counter-play, but still, I hope my one-turn matches can be compelling. Two characters go in, the reader is on-edge because of the stakes, and the better commander wins.

At the same time, the “one-turn war” isn’t necessarily unrealistic. War, like life, can be nasty, brutish, and short. Said Dwight D. Eiserhower, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” So wars and plans for wars must be indispensable for the point of my story.

Computers can beat humans at chess. In the long run, I’ll bet computers can beat humans at Poker. If computers haven’t already taken war, it’s just a matter of time. The dwarven champion—a bunch of gnome-brains wired together—is a war-computer. When Homer eventually fights the machine, he’ll need to prove humanity (and elves, and seafolk, and monsters, and life in general) is more important than pure mechanical efficiency.

I figure table-war is the best place to prove that. If Homer won a game of chess, he’d just prove he’s better at chess. If Homer won a game of Poker, he’d just prove he’s lucky and steel-eyed. When Homer wins table-war, he’ll prove life has value.

Why is Homer the minotaur going to stop the dwarfs? The elvish queen seemed to think elves deserved the honor because elves and dwarfs are enemies, but I think a minotaur is the perfect symbol for life’s value in the face of machinery. Minotaurs are classically trapped in labyrinths; like an allegory for all sentient beings, they wake in the dark and stumble through an unhelpful world. Maybe minotaurs could be replaced with robots that walk aimlessly through mazes, but “one must imagine Sisyphus happy” and one must imagine minotaurs explore mazes with intent. Homer’s endless trials, in and out of his labyrinth, have shaped him and made him more than a maze-walker. He’ll never be free, because the outside world is a political labyrinth with no exit, but minotaurs can handle labyrinths.

In myth, Ariadne helped Theseus navigate the minotaur’s maze with a roll of thread. In The Minotaur’s Board-Game, Aria Twine ignores possible pupils like Thaddeus to lead her minotaur by the nose. Then, Aria realizes she herself has been led by the nose by Queen Anthrapas. In my next commentary maybe I’ll talk more about Twine’s role in the story, but so far I’m happy with how I’ve repurposed mythical figures.

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The Wheel of Virtue

In Homer and the Griffon Aria sells her dragonling to humanity’s royal beast-master and meets Queen Anthrapas, ruler of the human race. She’s escorted by Sir Jameson, a military recruiter.

A military recruiter doesn’t do much in this fantasy world where war is replaced with board-games. Jameson just dresses up in armor to inspire people to register as game-pieces. A new recruit has gnomes take their notes, then leaves knowing he’s done his civic duty. His avatar might be fighting for humanity even while he’s asleep!

In my first draft, I wasn’t quite sure what Sir Jameson’s purpose was. I added him because I thought Aria needed another character to bounce off; Homer doesn’t talk at all, and gnomes are sorta robotic. I actually added two characters in my first draft, but now I’ve elided them together into Jameson.

Currently, I think Jameson is a Watson-type character. Sherlock Holmes is a genius, so the reader needs Watson for Sherlock to explain things to in layman’s terms. While Aria, Homer, and the gnomes understand table-war, Jameson doesn’t, so the other characters have a reason to explain things to him, and, simultaneously, the reader.

I’ve heard amnesia is a common trope in fiction for the same reason. If the main character doesn’t remember anything, then they know exactly as much as the reader! Homer, the total newcomer to this strange world, fills that niche.

Still, I don’t want Jameson to be a boring tag-along. I already mentioned YuGiOh is a tongue-in-cheek inspiration for The Minotaur’s Board-Game, and while I’m glad to write about a fantasy-world revolving around geeky hobbies, I don’t want useless, annoying cheerleader characters like those who follow Yugi all day.

A third-wheel character like Jameson can benefit from the Wheel of Virtue. I’m absolutely butchering this idea, but the way I understand it, the Wheel of Virtue a helpful way for me to think about how characters should act. Says Noel Carroll, “some… art can function and is designed to function as a source of moral purposes,” specifically a delineation between vice and virtue. If a novel is meant to convey a message about a particular virtue, it’s helpful to have a cast of characters which accounts for a spectrum of possibilities along the gradient from virtue to vice. A story whose message is “Greed is bad, charity is good” could benefit from characters who are very greedy, a little greedy, a little charitable, and very charitable.

If the novel explores multiple virtues, we can imagine a Cartesian plot of characters on the axes of virtue and vice. If you want your book to convey a theme about virtue X versus virtue Y, say for example, “greed is bad, charitably is good, and also Star Wars is better than Star Trek“, each character should express a unique combination of greediness/charitably and fandom affiliation. This lets the text show the reader how these qualities intermingle.

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Says Carroll, “In literary fiction… these comparisons and contrasts… prompt the audience to apply concepts of virtue and vice to the characters, thus exercising and sharpening their ability to recognize instances of these otherwise often vaguely defined or highly abstract concepts.”

In The Minotaur’s Board-Game I think the relevant “virtues” are physical strength, intelligence, and political power. These three attributes separate characters nicely: some characters are strong (Homer, Jameson), some characters are weaker (Aria, Anthrapas, gnomes, elves). Many characters are intelligent (Homer, Aria, Anthrapas, Stephanie, gnomes) because the story demands it, but they showcase different kinds of intelligence (Homer is mute, Aria is manipulative, gnomes are mechanical). But neither strength nor intelligence make someone politically relevant. These feel like linearly independent attributes.

So Sir Jameson should occupy an untouched area of the virtue-wheel. Let’s make him strong, and not terribly intelligent, but his patriotism for humanity gives him just enough political clout for Aria to leverage. In that respect he’s sort of a human version of Homer. I think that gives him a great vantage-point to be the perfect Tristan: a third-wheel character who just gawks while the real protagonist, Homer, wins table-war.

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The act of actually plotting characters on a virtue-wheel might be a little anal-retentive, but the idea itself is a handy device for conceptualizing what kinds of characters are necessary to complete a narrative and convey a theme. If nothing else, I hope it helps me keep from accidentally populating my work with duplicate characters; if any two characters occupy the same role, it’s often easy to smush them together into one franken-character and maintain thematic integrity.

I hope you enjoyed reading my weirdly analytical thoughts on fiction-writing! I sure enjoyed writing it.

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PS. Another applicable virtue might be Age, or Experience. Anthrapas is sort of Aria’s “evolved form,” so to speak.

Inspirations

In Homer VS the Dwarf Aria brings her minotaur to the market to sell him, but he proves a force to be reckoned with in a game of table-war.

In this commentary I want to talk about my inspirations for this story, and what I hope it becomes.

Although the idea of a minotaur following “twine” is obviously related to greek myth, and I feature my own twists on the typical gamut of fantasy races (elves, dwarfs), the biggest inspiration for The Minotaur’s Board-Game is the anime YuGiOh. I enjoyed the show as a kid, and while it becomes more ridiculous every time I remember it, I still look back fondly on the series with a campy nostalgia.

In YuGiOh, a boy with improbable hair is possessed by an ancient Egyptian pharaoh who’s great at card-games. He wins every card-game he comes across and saves the world with the luck of the draw. The audience is rarely worried about whether the pharaoh will win, and more eager to see how he wins.

I already spoiled this in the last commentary: Homer the minotaur will win all his table-war matches. He’s not possessed by a pharaoh or anything, but his outsider’s perspective will let him surprise his opponents. I don’t think there are so many table-war games in this story that the reader to get bored of seeing Homer win; I hope the reader will be eager to see how Homer turns the tables, and yet still be surprised when he does.

One major joke regarding YuGiOh, among people in the know, is that the characters basically ignore the card-game’s rules. Occasionally YuGi’s catapult-turtle launches Gaia the dragon-champion at his own swords of revealing light, or whatever, warping the rules to give our protagonist a win. I hope to sidestep this by making up my own game, table-war.

Table-war has few, if any, explicit rules. The gnomes, impeccable machine-creatures, arbitrate each match with their own undisclosed guidelines meant to recreate real life. This way I get to focus on the back-and-forth of combat instead of worrying about a concrete set of rules and whether my characters are following them. The structure of the game is based less on YuGiOh’s hand of trading cards, and more on Warhammer 40k’s table of miniatures; I’ve never played 40k, but its tiny warzones are a striking image.

Another inspiration is The Turk, a book about a 1700’s clockwork machine which played chess. Spoiler alert, it was a hoax: someone hid under the table and directed the machine’s movement. Today we’ve got Deep Blue and other powerful computers which can whup humanity’s ass at chess and basically any other board-game, but a clockwork machine is a still great symbol.

My original conception of this story would have Homer, the minotaur, forced into a box to operate a Turk-style table-war machine. Sort of a Pixar’s Ratatouille thing. I still like this idea, and maybe I’ll return to it, but I’ve decided to have Homer fight against a machine in the final chapters; he’ll face a The Turk/Deep Blue style robot to prove that his unique, creative perspective is more valuable than pure computational power.

Another inspiration is modern warfare. Long-gone are the days of trenches; today we have drones and satellites which abstract war, and the internet delivers propaganda at light-speed. Likewise, in my fictional world, there is no actual war, just table-war. No one dies in battle; their game-pieces die, and the real person they represent probably doesn’t know or care. Rather than diminishing the effects of war, I hope table-war lets my fantasy setting comment on the nature of leadership in our modern era. How do you command people? How do you relate to people you could send to die in your name?

Still, in terms of what I want the story to achieve, I mostly want to have fun writing, because I enjoy writing and I think it’s neat.

But besides myself, who am I aiming the story toward? Honestly, I’m not sure. I hope the story is appealing to all age-groups, but I think I’m writing for people not much younger than me (24) of any gender. I’m minimizing the swearing and adult themes, so maybe I could claim it’s for young adults and teens.

Anyway, thanks for reading. If you’d like to read more, check out the table of contents or follow my site to receive emails whenever I update.

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