Authors have to make a lot of choices when building their stories. Plots, characters, and settings all have to be figured out, and usually you need more than one of each! Ideally, every choice supports the next, joining together into a greater whole, but stories often fall short of that ideal. Instead of fitting together smoothly, clashing choices pull the story in different directions, and there’s rarely an easy way to reconcile them.
Spoiler Notice: The Legend of Vox Machina
1. Mary and the Witch’s Flower
This animated adaptation of The Little Broomstick is absolutely gorgeous, especially the magic. Mary doesn’t start the story with any powers, but she quickly finds a cool flower that grants her sorcerous abilities, and then we’re off to the broom races! We see the breathtaking interior of a school for witches and the homey warmth of an enchanted cottage. Mary discovers that she can now perform wondrous feats like turning invisible and talking through mirrors. When the villains attack with their wicked spells, Mary defeats them with spells of her own.
The magic is so cool that you might not even notice how there’s very little plot in the first half and how, once the plot starts, it doesn’t make much sense. That’s quite an achievement, so it’s extremely weird when, at the end of the movie, Mary proudly announces that she’s done with magic forever. She even throws away the last of those flowers that let her cast spells, as if they were some addictive drug and she was quitting cold turkey.
This appears to be part of the film’s message: magic is somehow bad and we should be happy to get rid of it, which is jarring to the extreme. If the filmmakers wanted us to cheer for Mary leaving magic behind, they shouldn’t have made magic so gosh darned cool! It’s true that the villains also use magic, but that doesn’t support the message any more than a super-science villain would support the message of getting rid of all technology.* If nothing else, the film’s villains are probably still alive, and they might try to do something evil again, this time with no one to stop them.
The film utterly fails to build a case that magic as a whole is bad, and it doesn’t even seem to be trying. The only possible argument for Mary to give up magic is that unlike normal witches, she wasn’t born with magical talent. But that just feels like the film is telling Mary not to get ideas above her station, which is even worse.
The core issue is that the film spends an hour and a half showing us how cool magic is, but then it wants us to be happy that Mary won’t ever use magic again. This is similar to a problem many portal fantasy stories have, when the heroes must inevitably return home to a world that’s far less interesting than the magical realm, and we’re supposed to be satisfied with it. What makes Witch’s Flower exceptional is how much attention it calls to the issue through Mary’s dialogue and also that Mary could theoretically go back to living with her family while still being a witch!
If the film wanted this ending to be satisfying, then it would need to show why magic is bad in its entirety, a corrupting influence that must be rejected. But it can’t do that, because the filmmakers also want magic to be cool and wondrous!
2. The Wizard Hunters
This novel starts with the nation of Ile-Rien* fighting a war against a mysterious enemy: the Gardier.* No one knows who the Gardier are, what they want, or even where they come from. Their airships appear from nowhere, bomb Rienish cities, and then disappear. Their ground forces are equally mysterious, using magic the Rien have never seen before.
That’s a cool premise, and it’ll be great fun to watch our heroes figure out what’s going on with this brand-new enemy! Except, wait, the war has already been raging for three years by the time the story starts? How does that work? There’s no way the Rien could have been fighting this war for three years and still know nothing about their enemy. They’d have captured Gardier equipment, intercepted radio communication,* and interrogated captured prisoners. Sun Tzu didn’t place heavy emphasis on knowing one’s enemy just for fun; it’s an essential component of warfare.
Don’t worry, the author has an explanation: the Gardier are effectively invincible. Their airships are protected by unbreachable wards, and they have a spell that destroys any advanced technology in a wide area. Oh, and they’re immune to most Rienish magic. So Rienish soldiers have to fight without their equipment, and if they somehow manage to attack anyway, they run into impenetrable magic barriers. The only option the Rien have is to cast illusion spells and run away.
In fairness, that does explain how Ile-Rien hasn’t learned anything from capturing Gardier soldiers or technology, as any such attempts have been impossible. But it raises another question: How have the Gardier not won the war yet? This matchup is more one sided than any of the US’s recent invasions, and none of those took more than a few months. The Rien could always mount an insurgency, of course, but the war’s conventional stage should have been over long ago.
From a dramatic perspective, this also makes it very difficult for our heroes to defeat the Gardier without resorting to contrivances. In most cases, the heroes rely on an increasingly powerful magic item, which seems to be able to do just about anything. In the few cases where the magic item isn’t around, the Gardier conveniently forget their most powerful abilities. None of this makes for satisfying victories.
The obvious answer seems to be making the Gardier a recently arrived enemy. That way, they can be powerful rather than invincible, and they’re still new enough to be mysterious. That doesn’t work, though, because the author really seems to want the aesthetics of a long, exhausting war. Rienish cities are worn down from years of bombing, and most civilian life has been suspended for the war effort. The book also needs a reason for the protagonist to have a deep hatred for the Gardier, which would be harder to justify if they’d arrived recently.
In this case, I think the clashing choices could have been reconciled with some moderate tweaking. If the Gardier used a spell to wipe their soldiers’ minds in the event of capture, that would go a long way to explaining why so little is known about them. It’s an extreme act, but we later learn that the Gardier have an extreme society devoted to victory at all costs, so it would fit. From there, we could explain that while some Gardier tech has been captured, most of it works the same as Rienish tech, just bigger and more powerful. Any unusual bits could be too badly damaged to decipher. Ile-Rien would still know a little more about its enemy than in the published version, but not so much as to dispel the mystery.
3. The Lightning Thief
The first Percy Jackson novel is a fairly straightforward adventure story where Percy and his friends must go on a quest to save the world. Specifically, they have to save the world by stopping the Greek gods from going to war with each other, which will be a bad time for all involved. This does raise the ever-present question of why such high stakes are being left in the hands of 12-year-olds, but the author does a decent job of covering it.
We’re told that because of divine politics, Percy has to be the one to prevent the war, since he’s (falsely) accused of provoking it in the first place. And he’s only allowed to take two companions his own age with him because of tradition. Sure, that’ll hold, so long as no one looks at it too closely.
The problem arises from the skill levels of our three adventurers. Percy is a normal kid who is just starting to discover the considerable abilities he inherited from his father, Poseidon.* Grover the satyr is significantly older, but satyrs age slower than humans, so he’s effectively the same age and with roughly the same skills from all the time he’s spent pretending to be a human kid.
Then there’s Annabeth,* daughter of Athena, who’s spent the last five years training at Camp Halfblood. That’s nearly half her life, and by any measure, she should be far more skilled than either of her friends. She’s had way more time not only to practice fighting but also to unlock the power of her divine heritage. Granted, the book is a little vague about what powers Athena bestows, but she’s a goddess of wisdom and warfare, so it’s probably not pocket change.
Based on that skill gap, Annabeth should be carrying the team in most, if not all, of their encounters, with Peter and Grover occasionally adding some color commentary. Of course, that doesn’t happen, as Annabeth isn’t the main character. Even if she were the main character, it wouldn’t be a good look for her to make her friends redundant. Instead, Annabeth contributes about as much as you’d expect, solving some of the group’s problems with clever thinking while Percy handles the more physical threats.
This wouldn’t be a problem, except that it contradicts Annabeth’s established backstory, leaving the story to feel like a supercompetent girl is being pushed aside so a far less capable boy can take center stage. The obvious fix would be to alter Annabeth’s backstory so she’s also new to the magical world, perhaps arriving at Camp Halfblood a couple months before Percy. That way, she can know a little more than him, but not too much more.
Unfortunately, this clashes with other required elements of Annabeth’s backstory. She needs to have arrived at Camp Halfblood years ago so that she can share history with several other characters, which wouldn’t work otherwise. She also needs to have been estranged from her human family for several years as part of her character arc. I’m honestly not sure how to fix this one; it might just be a case of two irreconcilable goals for who Annabeth is.
4. The Legend of Vox Machina
Based on the popular Critical Role D&D campaign, Vox Machina is out to prove that D&D adaptations don’t have to be niche nerdy comedies or soulless commercial flops. Instead, this show cultivates a dark, gritty atmosphere where combat is brutally bloody and even the heroes often receive grievous injuries. Unfortunately, much of Vox Machina’s content clashes with the mood and tone it so desperately wants.
Part of the problem comes from D&D’s mechanics. Technically, Vox Machina isn’t constrained by anything in the Player’s Handbook, but its source material very much is. Even with all the changes made in adapting Critical Role for TV, the awkwardness of D&D’s rules still shines through.
The most obvious problem is healing. In 5th Edition D&D, magic healing is abundant, and characters can completely refresh their hit points with an eight-hour nap. In the show, it ensures that whatever injuries the main characters receive, they’re almost always fine by the next scene, which significantly undercuts the dark atmosphere.
Specific character abilities also cause problems. Scanlan has a spell that lets him fly,* but the writers keep trying to build tension around him falling or being trapped somewhere high up. Percy’s gun should be the party’s MVP, but the show still acts like it only does 1d10 damage. The show can’t bring itself to explain a concept as silly as spells per day, so Pike and Keyleth seemingly forget about their most powerful abilities after using them once. Vex probably has it the worst. Her Favored Enemy: Dragons ability manifests as a literal headache whenever dragons are nearby, and the show keeps forgetting that she has an armored bear for an animal companion.
This is all pretty silly, but the show also recreates the original campaign’s jokey, over-the-top banter. Such banter is a common feature of D&D campaigns, as a bunch of friends sitting around a table are prone to goofing off. It’s arguably even more prevalent in spectator campaigns like Critical Role, since making the audience laugh is a great way to bring them back for the next session.
None of this would be a problem if Vox Machina weren’t so dedicated to being dark and gritty. It’s hard to enjoy the ribald jokes when an NPC is gushing blood from a severed limb. Even worse, sometimes the characters waste time goofing around while the bad guys are busy working through evil to-do lists of torture and murder. It feels like the characters aren’t taking this seriously, so why should the audience?
The easy solution would be for the show to go for a lighter tone to match its comedic banter. Not too light, as this is a story about smiting foes and slaying monsters, but a bit less gore in the fight scenes would go a long way.
Alternatively, Vox Machina could commit to its bit and become a proper black comedy rather than languishing in the weird halfway zone it currently occupies, but that’s a lot trickier. The show would have to use more care when crafting jokes, so it doesn’t include any that undercut the show’s serious elements. That’s more work than simply putting extremely silly stuff and extremely grim stuff in the same episode.
5. Baldur’s Gate
How about that, another D&D-related story for me to complain about. Fortunately, the clashing in this classic video game’s story has little to do with the D&D rules upon which it is based.* Instead, the problem comes from mechanics unique to the game and the way those mechanics interact with the story.
If you’re not familiar with the game, your character is the half-mortal offspring of Bhaal, the god of murder. A big part of the game’s plot is exploring how that heritage shapes your life. Will you subvert Bhaal and use your powers for good or embrace the dead god and become a nexus of violence and suffering? To be fair, you’ll commit a lot of violence either way because this is an adventure RPG, but the point stands.
Since Baldur’s Gate is a video game, it makes sense that the creators wanted the player to have input in the protagonist’s choices. Unfortunately, they tied that choice to the game’s reputation mechanic. In a series of cutscenes, the game checks your reputation. If it’s 10 or higher, your character makes the good decision. If it’s nine or lower, they make the evil decision. Simple, right?
The first issue is that it’s actually pretty difficult to have a reputation of less than 10. Even if you’re a jerk to every NPC you meet, the game offers way more opportunities to gain reputation than lose it, and most playthroughs will quickly settle into the high teens. The only way you’re likely to lose a lot of reputation is by killing random townsfolk, at which point the game becomes hard to play as angry soldiers randomly spawn in to attack you. A lot of players, probably most players, will go through the entire game getting the good choices by default. This gives the impression that rejecting Bhaal’s influence is no big deal, just something to take care of between selling that pile of shortswords you found and copying Magic Missile into your spellbook.
The other issue is that Baldur’s Gate can’t seem to decide what your reputation actually means. Sometimes it signifies your inner moral compass, since you lose reputation for killing civilians even if there’s no one around to see. You also start with a lower reputation if you pick an evil alignment, which further suggests that it’s an internal thing.
But in other sequences, reputation represents what other people think of you, which is much more intuitive considering it’s called “reputation.” You only lose reputation for stealing if someone sees you do it, and the game is quick to explain that if you let a drow join your party, you’ll only lose reputation because people are prejudiced against drow, not because the drow in question is evil.*
So according to Baldur’s Gate logic, I can steal everything in a town that’s not nailed down, but so long as no one sees me, it won’t make me any more likely to fall under Bhaal’s influence. If I actually murder someone, and my identity is presumably determined offscreen by the Sword Coast CSI, I can make up for it by donating a lot of money to my local temple.
You can see how this quickly decouples your actions as a player from the description of your character’s heroic struggle against Bhaal’s blood. The obvious question is why they decided to tie your choices to reputation in the first place. Why not just have the player pick an option during the cutscene? I can only guess, but it seems like they didn’t want you to be evil for your entire playthrough, only to pick the good options in cutscenes. That could feel a little unsatisfying, as if your previous choices didn’t matter, but it’s probably better than turning good because you had an extra 1,000 gold pieces for the donation plate.
Sometimes, clashing story elements create only a minor dissonance, and they can be left as is. But when the clash is over something important, it creates a story that’s at war with itself. Whether there’s a clever solution that reconciles the contradictions or the only solution is major revisions, it’s important to identify these clashes before a story goes to print.
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