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The Challenges of Writing in a Shared Fictional Universe With a Long Running Story
Posted Feb 27, 2018 - 13:57:13


So earlier this week, the first "plot installment" for No Brand Con 2018 went live. For those unaware, for most of its seventeen year history, No Brand Con has kept an ongoing storyline with a revolving cast of mascot characters. The story starts online before the con, and then concludes with live performers during the event.

For the first couple of years the con did this, it was produced almost like an Alternate Reality Game through the forums, but starting around year six shifted to telling the stories through what is effectively a web series. For seventeen cons (including the upcoming one this year), the con has told (with varying levels of complexity) twelve stories, ten of which were done in the format of the web series. I was involved in the production of eight of these web series, but only really wrote or co-wrote six of them. While that means I'm probably the dominant voice in the fiction, I only really had control over the continuity for half of these stories.

On quite a few occasions, I was working within the restrictions of writers who came before me. Like there was a major plot hole in No Brand Con 2005's "BrandCorp" storyline where a major character (Wilson Oakes) disappeared between Opening Ceremonies and the Cosplay Contest intermission at the con. Since the other significant villain from that story (Executron) kept appearing, we just told people Wilson Oakes had been killed off during the con, and made jokes about it. When we revisited BrandCorp again in 2011, I made one of those jokes canon in a video that recapped the earlier story to close the plot-hole.

In other cases, later writers made changes which will complicate future storylines. Like, Duct Tape Boy flies a No Brand Hero owned spaceship for the No Brand Con 2009 storyline (which I co-wrote). Yet in the No Brand Con 2016 storyline (which I was not involved in), Duct Tape Boy can't drive a car and needs someone else to do it for him. Starting this year, I'm back to writing the thing and we haven't resolved it in-fiction yet. I'm going to probably have to puzzle that out eventually.

I'll probably make a joke about Duct Tape Boy having a "Class S" license which only lets him drive Spaceships and Commercial Vehicles over 26,000 pounds or something.

Finally, there's just the complication of doing a zero-budget web series over a period of time this long. Getting consistent performers is hard. The one reason the Gardening Ninja shows up so much in the web episodes is, frankly, because I play him. Besides the six years I helped come up with the story, I helped edit and produce another two. I was just around. To lift the curtain a bit, some characters like Duct Tape Boy can be recast. While there have only been a small number of "main" Duct Tape Boys, I think like eight different people have played the character in some capacity at this point?

Most characters have visible faces though, so recasting isn't an option. Often we just write around this (including only the available cast in the plot). Other times it introduces plot issues. The second incarnation of Greenboy, for example, was initially played by Conner Vail. I can't remember why, but for some reason Conner wasn't going to be available to play the character anymore. Knowing this ahead of time though, we wrote into the No Brand Con 2011 plot that he was captured by BrandCorp and physically transformed ala-Captain America (or as I usually reference, Bo Abobo from the Double Dragon movie) in that year's third episode. David "Mousse" Janacek took over the character for a few years, and all was well.

Except then Mousse wasn't available anymore.

A few stories just had Greenboy off screen, but this year the story would have felt weird not to use him. Frankly, with the plot being based around Duct Tape Boy's disappearance, not having Greenboy would mean the Gardening Ninja was returning to zero familiar faces. Greenboy needed to be there, and Mousse was not an option... but Conner was. So we introduced the plot element that at some point Greenboy was de-transformed. We don't know how yet, and maybe we'll never explain the events that lead to it.

But hey, it's in the story now.

I mean, I guess it helps that the rules to our world are a little absurdist. I mean, ostensibly it's a cast of C-list superheroes who (in canon) help run an Anime convention while fighting off Egyptian Space Mummies and an evil, tiny robot. Some other writers (*cough*STAN*cough*) have gone a little bit too absurdist, but overall it kind of works.

It's just a massive pain to figure out what the heck actually happened sometimes though.
- Traegorn

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