Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Way to a Gamer's Heart

If you read my personal livejournal, you already know that I just got my check from White Wolf, for my contribution to a game book I can't name because it hasn't been announced yet. My very first check for writing. I'm overjoyed. Anyway, in honor of this momentous occasion, let's talk about writing for games: what I like, what I don't like, what I try to do, what I fear I do wrong, and what some of my favorites are.

Incidentally, if you're interested in this topic, I recommend you check out Master Plan, one of the several gaming podcasts I listen to. Ryan Macklin spends a lot of time talking about the ins and outs of writing roleplaying games that are fun, effective, and accessible. In particular, I should draw your attention to Episode #25, where Ryan talks about the need for rpg material to be entertaining.

Now that I've totally spoiled you for what I'm going to say next, let's begin.

This may come as a surprise, but I'm not convinced that a roleplaying book has to be a brilliant piece of prose. Oh, it can (probably should) contain some good prose, whether it's in the form of chapter fictions, comic book pages, or spurious primary sources. That sort of stuff is essential to building mood and explicating setting and tone. If the rest of the game is clear, workmanlike text, that's fine. On some level, rpg material is like a user's manual for an awesome toy. The fun comes once you've figured out the toy, and the manual should help you get to that point.

You'll note, however, that I wrote 'that's fine.' Fine it may be, but it's far from ideal.

If a roleplaying game can be made entertaining - maybe even exciting - to read without sacrificing any of the clarity, that is the golden grail of rpg writing. It's rarely done, but when it is achieved, it always blows my mind.

My favorite example of this is the game Weapons of the Gods produced by Eos Press. In brief: it's a high-flying Wuxia-style martial arts game. What's exciting is that except for a brief section explaining the basic rules and character generation process, the game text itself is a series of short fictions explicating the setting's many varied facets. Each and every thing - every region, every NPC, every style of martial art or iota of secret lore, every philosophy, every historical period, every ancient and puissant magical weapon - is presented with its own little ficlet.

This astounding trait is surmounted by two more amazing facts: everything in the book is interrelated, meaning that a section on history links to sections on philosophy, several martial arts, and a magical weapon, at least, and everything in the book is presented as something a character might start with a connection to. In fact, it's possible to purchase an entangled destiny for a fraction of the price of an actual trait, meaning that you 'tag' the trait for later involvement in your story. Revolutionary! After purchasing Weapons of the Gods at GenCon, I read it in one day on the way back to California.

The second consideration about a piece of game material is the immortal question: "what can I do with this?" Have you ever read a game book and thought to yourself "this is great, but I can't actually do anything with it"? Yeah, I hate that.

Writing game material that answers that immortal question is another difficult balance. The key, you see, is to write just enough that the text is chock-full of cool stuff, but not so much that the reader doesn't have wiggle room. Roleplaying is ultimately a dynamic art form, and if everything is nailed down, the dynamism goes right out the door. Unfortunately, well... if you're a writer, you understand how hard it is to not write, even when it's what's best for the project. It's like telling a sprinter that the key to winning a race is to not run.

Coming to the rescue in this case is another favorite of mine: Unknown Armies by Atlas Games. In some ways a slightly generic urban occult horror game, Unknown Armies explicates much of it's plot via rumors, the sorts of things someone embedded in the setting might hear if he had his ear to the ground in the occult underworld. The form is so popular that "Unknown Armies-Style Rumor Threads" are common on RPGnet for a variety of games and White Wolf has picked it up for some of it's newest supplements. How are rumors revolutionary? As a writer, they let you write lots without overdefining the game material. All you have to throw together some possibilities. Some of them can be true, some can be false, some can be ambiguous, and all of them are stylish and atmospheric. Write them so they sound like rumory tidbits put them in a list, and bingo! Rumors.

While I'm at it, I should note another awesome victory in this facet of rpg writing: Keys to the Supernal Tarot, written for White Wolf's Mage: the Awakening by Matthew McFarland. The theme is simple: one Mage: the Awakening thing - person, place, thing, creature, character option, you name it - for every card of the Major Arcana, each of them exploring the themes of that card as it relates to the themes of Mage. Not only are all of these game items full of delicious hooks, each of them is also presented both as itself and as its inverted version; just as the cards can be flipped upside-down, subverting, weakening, or delaying their meanings, so to can the things in this book be reversed. Good things become bad, bad things become good, and hopeful things become problematic. Each option is presented with several possible uses and McFarland - already a master of writing just enough - leaves plenty of room to wriggle.

As for myself, I wish I could say that what I created for White Wolf was a brilliant example of everything I just wrote about... but I can't. As my first ever attempt at professional writing of any kind, especially professional roleplaying writing, I decided not to do anything too daring. I do think, however, that what I created was interesting, clear, and full of great possibilities, but not too full.

Of course, you'll all have to buy the book when it comes out and tell me what you think.

No comments: