Thursday, August 13, 2009

Prometheus in Chains

Today I'm going to talk about my friend G.D. Crowley and how he has revolutionized my understanding of roleplaying in specific and creating in general.

G.D. is the prolific game designer no one has ever heard of. If you followed the short rise and precipitous fall of Shifting Forest Storyworks (of which no web presence remains), the company co-founded by G.D., you might have already heard of his work and maybe even played one of his games. Shifting Forest produced one-shot Live Action Role Plays - parlor LARPS as they are often called - in handy little books. The games were, generally, intricate, surreal, and dark, like Neil Gaiman on an absinthe bender. Unfortunately, after a promising beginning, the company vanished off the face of the earth and is unlikely to return.

This is a shame, because the man is brilliant.

Two of G.D.'s tabletop games - the two I have the most contact with - are referenced in the title of this post. The first, Prometheus, is something I'm playing right now alongside the Abigail. Our characters are two dyanic invidivuals - a Blake, a Byronic loner, and Natalie, an angry vigilante - attempting to guide about two hundred human refugees through the strangest alien invasion I've ever heard of. Chains of the World is an epic game of modern sorcery that takes a character through the transformation of the world. Both of these - and many of G.D.'s other creations - have been well-recieved by those lucky enough to experience them... but there's a catch.

G.D. has very little interest in commercializing most of his games. He talks about writing a game for publication one day - and I hope he does and eagerly await the prospect - but most of what G.D. writes, he writes for himself to Gamemaster and his friends to play.

The major advantage of this form of creativity is that G.D. can afford to be extremely idiosyncratic. Many of the systems aren't quite comprehensible to outsiders. They work extremely well in every way - they are atmospheric, stylish, and easy (in that I as a player interact with them, anyway) - but I don't really grok them yet, and I'm not sure I will. Prometheus, for example, relies on a complex mandala of playing cards - used kind of like a Tarot spread - which are determined to support either success or failure based on an arcane set of qualifications that include the chracter's traits and aspects of human (and alien) paradigms of thought. Chains of the World, on the other hand, relies on three twenty-sided dice, one representing power, which relates to the character's success or failure; the other representing weirdness, which can add or subtract a random degree of, well, random; and the third representing significance, which is a measure of how important the roll will turn out to be in the larger plot. I think most writers and designers will join me in acknowledging the appeal of idiosyncraticy. Imagine... producing evocative fiction without having to explain yourself... it's fantastic.

Similarly, G.D. doesn't have to bother actually writing a lot of his game material. They can live in his head, with only just enough external notes to provide a stable skeleton. Setting, system, chronology, and important NPCs... all of these only need to be written down as much as G.D. needs them written down. G.D. is no slouch. He's more than willing to write down what he needs to write down, but this is certainly less than he'd have to write down if I was going to run one of his games.

A more neutral, but fascinating, trait is the linear and directed nature of G.D.'s games. While there is always room for character choice, G.D. manages to write games that tell very tight stories in a way that I have never seen before. Other games that try to do the same thing - White Wolf's Scion and Orpheus (both brilliant games) for example - often come across as heavy handed. With G.D.'s games, however, this never seems to be the case. I'm still not exactly sure why this happens; I'll have to get back to you on this.

The only downside to all this is really all about me: G.D.'s games lack something difficult to define. I contemplated it, turned it over in my head, and finally spat it out again.

G.D.'s games don't feel finished.

It came out in a conversation with the Abigail. I consider a story or a game finished when it's "marketable." Not "marketed" - I have no illusions that many of my creations that I'm most happy with may never actually be sold, much less actually make any money - but "marketable"; ready to be produced, sold, and presented to the world. I long for, as much as I fear, the moment that I let go of my baby and let it fly away. G.D., on the other hand, aims for ready to be presented to his friends, with himself as the presenter.

Ultimately, however, G.D. achieves much the same thing I attempt, with much more success. He creates cool and evocative fiction that touches people and changest their lives.

As a result, I am contemplating changing my definition of finished. Perhaps it shouldn't be "ready to be...", but just "ready." Ready for what? For whatever I created it for. Ready to be run for the Abigail. Ready to be given to Jon as a birthday present. Ready to be edited. Ready to be sent to an agent. Ready to be sold. G.D.'s flexibility has given him more success in game design than my rigidity has given me, so perhaps its time to consider changing my ways.

* * *

  • What alternate definitions of "ready" have you seen and toyed with?
  • What have you created with a goal in mind other than the obvious?
  • Have you ever played in a similar game, one that could only be run by its creator, but is still brilliant and evocative?


setrain said...

This is interesting because I was reading your old posts including the one about deciding whether something is a story or a game. I don't distinguish as hard. I think this is related to my games being unfinished. I'm not exactly sure why and I can't explain the intuition. But part of why I don't want to publish settings is I need the setting to be changing to incorporate each new game I run in them. And in the process they leave a trail of stories that I can write or inspiration for more stories that I can make more settings out of. I run games in named regions of protoplasmic creativity. I wouldn't know how to run a game in a finished setting. Huh.

(Was random rambly comment) Also I'm so tickle bounce squee that you wrote about my games in your blog. Cause I'm vain. Yeah.

Anonymous said...

Yay! I'm very pleased that you enjoyed my post. You deserve tons of fame.

I similarly enjoy the protoplasmic creativity stage, but I have this deep, implacable need to finish.