Thursday, November 6, 2008

Naming the Name: Story or Game?

My NaNoWriMo Wordcount: 3,143
Where I should be: 10,000
Response: Ugh

I'm a writer, a game designer, and a game player, and from time to time I find myself faced with a difficult (if ultimately pleasant) choice: what sort of idea is it that I'm having, anyway? Am I looking at a story idea, a potential game setting, an idea for a character I want to play, or a plot I want to run? Sometimes it is very clear what I'm looking it - this idea is definitely a novel or short story, that idea is definitely a character, this other idea is definitely something I want to inflict on one of the Abigail's characters - but sometimes it's not so easy.

I say the choice is ultimately pleasant because one some level it's like being asked if I'd rather eat a chocolate cake prepared by Julia Child with Jesus, Mohamed, Moses, or the Buddha. No matter what I choose, the company is going to be awesome, the conversation is going to be stirring, and I'm going to get some really cool questions answered. In case you haven't noticed, I really like writing.

The fact is, however, I have to choose one. And unlike the above example, choosing the wrong path can have consequences. Who out there hasn't read a novel that was a little too in love with its main character? Played in a game that felt too much like a story? Run for someone whose character was never really cut out for gaming (or even been that player. You know, that player)? Yeah, I thought so.

Now, I think you all have an idea of the basic attributes of each of the creative types in question. I'm going to go into it nonetheless, just to make sure we're all on the same page.

A story is probably the most balanced of the types. A story needs to have some themes, a setting, and some characters. The setting needs to have a some places, a history, and some other characters living in it (for the main characters to interact with). You need to know where the story has been and have some idea of where it's going. Most importantly, you need to be ready and willing to invent all of this yourself.

A roleplaying game has a lot of the same attributes as a story. It's full of themes, history, places, and people. Some of those people are interesting, but none of them should be too interesting, because you don't want to overshadow the player characters this world will eventually be host to. The most important difference between a story and roleplaying game is what a roleplaying game lacks: a roleplaying game does not have a clear arc from start to finish. It is what it is, all at once, poised on the edge of moving, but waiting for players to come along and make it live. A story, on the other hand, already has a destiny. You might not be sure of what it is, but it has it, already, somewhere deep inside you. The second most important distinction of a roleplaying game is that it is usually big. It doesn't contain just one story, it contains a multitude of stories

A game idea is a lot like a roleplaying game, except that it's lighter and more specific. A game idea is like a roleplaying game idea in every way except for that final distinction. It contains only one story, and that story is flexible, able to change depending on what the players do.

Finally, a character is a piece of a story who has wandered off the page and into your head. Only, it's important to make sure that he isn't secretly carrying the story with him. For an idea to be well and truly a character, it needs to have no future and a flexible past, ready to accommodate itself to the demands of the setting and conform to the hooks of your fellow players.

Let me share a small anecdote.

The first ever time I ran a one-on-one game, it was for my then-girlfriend, the Anya. The system was Dungeons and Dragons (then 3rd Edition), but the setting was one of my own devising. Oh, it was awesome. You see, the illithid (horrible brain-eating squid-men) had come up from the underground and enslaved everybody else. And then, after years of slavery, the elves led a revolution and freed everyone! Only, then the elves - themselves more traumatized than they wanted to admit - had gone on to enslave the humans, claiming that the humans had forgotten how to be free and needed to be guided. The elves had magic, and the illithid had psychic powers, and the rebel humans were torn about what powers to use, since they had the potential for both. Oh! And there was this secretive cabal of psychic humans (each of whom I had lovingly detailed) who were fighting to save the world, and-

I think you all see the problem already. This wasn't a game idea or a roleplaying game, it was a story. Why, exactly?

Well, there's nothing wrong with the setting (unless there's something about it you don't like). It's got themes, history, and I think you can see where some of the non-main characters live. The first problem is that I was clearly far, far to fond of my secretive cabal of psychics. They existed for their own sake, not because they would foil or interact with the Anya's character in any particularly compelling ways.

The second, more subtle problem was that the setting demanded a single idea. Really, what else are you going to do with it? Clearly, this is a story about how a plucky human overthrows the elves despite a resurgence of the illithid menace and eventually leads all the races to a new age of harmony and prosperity. Or, if you go in for that sort of thing, it could be a story about how intolerance and cultural trauma lead the free races of the world to death and misery. The thing is, the central tension of the setting was very clear and very specific. The humans were going to fight back against enslavement. The illithid were going to come back.

I think it's a pretty nifty idea. One day, I'll even write it. However, because I had applied an idea to the wrong category, the game eventually ran out of steam and died, and the Anya and I broke up shortly thereafter.

Ok, that last part had nothing to do with the game, but I digress.

The most important thing to remember is that this problem really isn't a problem. It's a matter of looking with clear eyes at what it is that you have and then deciding what to do with it. There's nothing wrong any idea that could be a story, a roleplaying game, a game session, or a charater, if you do with it what it was always meant to do.

On some level, I believe that writers are like artists who look at blocks of wood or chunks of marble and try to discern what the wood or marble needs to become. And just like them, on some level it is pretentious frippery to pretend that wood or marble needs to become anything. Creativity comes from humanity, not from chunks of wood or stone or blank pieces of paper. But despite that, on some level, it's also true. Sometimes you need to look at an idea and let it tell you what it's supposed to be.

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