Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Dear Readers

Today's post is going to have to be brief because I have way too much to do today (including my taxes, registering for the CBEST - or maybe the CSET, I can't remember - making sixteen billion phone calls, sending thirty-two billion emails, and at some point eating lunc). However, let it never be said that the Burning Zeppelin Experience missed a day.

Again.

Today, I'd like to talk about a phenomenon that touches on writing and roleplaying, something the Abigail introduced me to: the letter game.

Wikipedia defines a letter game as:

the exchange of written letters, or e-mails, between two or more participants. The first player writes a letter in the voice of a newly created character; in this first letter, the writer should establish her own identity and that of her correspondent, should set the scene, and should explain why she and her correspondent must communicate in written fashion. In subsequent letters, plot and character can be developed, but the writers should not talk about plot outside of the letters and the characters should never meet. Letter games can be a writing exercise or a form of collaborative fiction
Wikipedia lists Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot (I'm back to Amazon links because it looks like Amazonfail was accidental) by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer as an example of a novel produced by a letter game (Wikipedia also lists the sequel, The Grand Tour, but I don't believe it counts, as The Grand Tour is written in the form of diary entries, not letters). Those books I've read and can vouch for enthusiastically. Wikipedia also lists P.S. Longer Letter Later and Snail Mail, No More by Ann Martin and Paula Danziger. I haven't read those books, so you're on your own. Another novelized letter game, this one also unread, but sitting on my shelf and eagerly awaiting me, is Freedom and Necessity by Emma Bull and Stephen Brust.

Before I start gushing about how awesome letter games are, let me come clean: I have never successfuly completed a letter game, if by "completed" you mean "finished telling the story" and assume that a thing like a letter game really needs an ending. My every effort so far has either bombed abominably in the first letter or eventually petered off into nothing. Sometimes it was my fault, sometimes it was someone else's fault, and sometimes it was nobody's fault. However, perhaps the greatest testament to this form of writing is that no matter how many times I fail, I keep on trying.

The rules of a letter game are fairly simple and the Wikipedia article does a good job of summarizing them.

So, what is so cool about a letter game?

As a form of roleplaying and interactive storytelling, letter games are extremely low rent. It doesn't take much energy to read a letter and reply, and once or twice a month is all it takes to keep a letter game going.

As a writing discipline I find the structure of a letter game fascinating. The fact that I can't write whatever I want, but instead have to adapt my ideas to the form of letters and make sure the characters can't and don't ever meet, is invigorating. I love having to stay fast on my feet, reacting to my partner's letters instead of just to myself and my own ideas.

Letter games are awesome, and you should all be playing them all the time.

And if any of you want to start one... you know where to find me.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

is lunc a new meal I have not heard of? I've heard of 2nd breakfast, and elevensies, but never lunc. please enlighten us!

Mark said...

"Lunc" is what you get when you eat "lunch" in such a hurry that you have to drop the last letter, but not so much of a hurry that you end up eating "lun," "lu" or "l."

Mark said...

EDIT: what do you think happened to "luncheon?"

Scattercat said...

I remember sending the first letter and never, ever getting anything back...

Not to keep harping on this, but as a for-instance, we're kind of holding on True Thomas to have some kind of input in the Nobilis game, and you haven't responded to my e-mail, either.

snowflame said...

Why should the characters have to never meet in a letter game? Granted, to some extent picking some random restrictions to breed creativity can be cool, but that's exactly what that seems to me - a random restriction. I suppose it might blend too much into "switch the author episodic storytelling" and engender conflicts between truly uncooperative writers when it comes to writing the "other guy's" character, but meh, you should probably only be doing this with writers you trust anyway.

That said, yes, collaborative story-telling in which you're not allowed to go back and edit the past can be quite cool.

Al Bruno III said...

Have you ever heard of the role playing game "De Profundis?". I'm not sure if it is still in print but it tried to combine a letter game with Call of Cthulhu. It is a slim rulebook and a very interesting read.

Mark said...

@ ScattercatLike I said, my fault as often as not.

@ SnowflameThe idea is that should the characters meet in person, they would have exchanges that would fall outside the scope of the letter game, hindering its utility as a narrative device.

@ Al BrunoNo, I haven't. I'll have to look it up.