As the reader or viewer, the final product can feel inevitable to you — how else would you end 2012’s The Avengers except with the “A” in Stark tower flickering alone, the other letters all knocked off? But, if the director’s commentary is to be believed, that idea came shockingly late in the process. And have you ever read the first draft of “The Star Wars”...?
Creation is a process — it’s a lot of dead ends and false starts and being wrong for a while, but holding on to that kernel of something good and trying to figure out what its truest, best expression is.
In the case of my fantasy audio drama The Ordinary Epic, it took me kind of a while to figure that out.
I had always wanted to see a story about tabletop gamers that felt like tabletop gaming does. Where the story could move through our world into a shared imaginary world and back again, and everyone is changed in some way by the experience. Like a portal fantasy where no one has actually left the real world, except in their collective imagination.
I was also tired of stories about gamers where the fact that they game is the running joke. I badly wanted to see a story about gamers and their game that was both funny and dramatic but most of all earnest.
There are probably more I’m forgetting, but I remember two specific moments where I realized this could be done, and done well: the Community episode “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” and an episode of The Truth podcast called “Chaotic Neutral.” That episode of The Truth was especially influential, because it showed me that this could work really well through audio.
Into the mix also went Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s monster of the week — where the challenge she and her friends faced each episode was a fantastical metaphor for something mundane, and the mundane problem could only be resolved by first solving the fantastical problem — and The West Wing’s quick, glib banter and “go team” energy, where the characters are often talking about really wonkish, specific things, but the way that they’re all totally plugged in is captivating.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, I made an unlikely connection: they’re not mere gamers — they’re superheroes! Their game isn’t escapist fantasy for them; their fantasy selves are superheroic expressions of who they truly are. Who they can be in the game is their superpower.
So I knew how what format the story would be in, and how to tell the story, but what I didn’t know yet was this:
What is the story?
I began the very, very first draft of the pilot script in September 2015. Other than our very generous Patreon supporters, I have never let anyone see any part of this draft, which is a mercy. But in the spirit of transparency, here’s a carefully selected snippet:
Okay, well we were talking before you came downstairs, Bryan, and what this party needs—
—is someone who can cast defensive and healing magic. Think you’d be okay playing a cleric?
I have no idea? Sure.
Yeah. Just give it a try, and if you don’t like it...
SFX: A sheet of paper being picked up and handed across the table.
This is your character sheet. It lists your abilities, equipment, and such—it’ll make more sense as we go along. I picked dwarf as a race, but if you want to be something else—
No, that’s cool.
Great! And all you need is a name.
How about... Thorin Oakenshield?
He hates the Hobbit movies for unaccountable reasons.
Really? “Unaccountable.” Really.
How about like... Thorne... Broken... rock?
...I’ll allow it.
This draft taught me not to get bogged down in the specifics of gaming: character sheets and classes and die rolls. It eventually became clear to me that I had to sand away the minutiae of gaming and just tell the story of what happens in and around the game. This sequence was preceded by Emo walking upstairs to let Bryan into Athena’s house... where they have an awkward encounter at the door... and then walk back downstairs to join the group. I learned another lesson here: whenever possible, keep the gaming group at the table. Another peek (tell no one):
Whether or not a person is nice is not my concern — evil is.
What is good? What is evil? It’s all relative, isn’t it?
Well, no — I can see it.
You can actually see evil?
Pelor grants me this sight, yes.
What color is evil?
Sort of an orange-ish red?
Are you… seeing evil now?
You made sure to look at Caelus, right?
Enough of this. Thack, bind and gag the prisoner if you please.
Rather slice, but okay.
Thank you for not killing me.
(friendly) No worry, kill you some other day.
The characters were starting to become more clear, but the story was still taking way too long to get moving. I was often following the jokes as far as they would go rather than using dialogue to propel the action, which is another lesson I learned: lightness! momentum! What would The West Wing do?
I put this draft down and picked it back up again a few more times, and finally, in March 2016, I did something that many writers say to do but that I had never dared to do myself — I threw the whole thing out and started over. What emerged eventually became (give or take another eight rounds of revision and the invaluable input of everyone involved in the show and many others who aren’t) The Ordinary Epic’s pilot episode: “The Group.”
And then, of course, to my next great challenge: what would a second episode look like...?
This post was excerpted and adapted from a behind-the-scenes feature on ourPatreon.