Saturday, February 5, 2011

Roleplaying Games as Fiction

I was trying to sleep the other night, falling off slowly into the Land of Nod, when I was jerked awake. Now, normally, when I "jerk awake" that means the cops have busted in and I'm being hauled away. But it wasn't that kind of experience. (Nor was it the other kind of experience, for the filthy-minded among you). No, I had an idea that just couldn't wait to be put down on the page. I'd been talking to my friend Sara about game design earlier in the evening, nothing particularly technical, but she's been prompting me to write. I'd had some ideas, nothing particularly well-formed -- a mechanic here, a setting idea there. But nothing was jelling. My subconscious was chewing on these things, when things clicked.

Why write it as a game when I could write it as a story? That's not the idea I had. No. Instead, I just started writing down the ideas as they came into my head. What I discovered afterwards, when I read over my notes, is that I'd started writing a story. Changing the format of my thoughts -- from game to story -- seemed to make the whole process easier. (I'm not going to tell you about the idea. I generally keep that stuff to myself until the process is finished).

What I discovered is that all the random, scattered thoughts in my head about a game setting were finding their way into the notes on a story. Which brings me to this observation: What is the difference between a game and a story? There's a reason why White Wolf calls their games "The Storyteller System." It's really the main reason I enjoy roleplaying games. You get to tell a story.

Story is central in our lives as human beings. We learn by story. From the days sitting around the fire, hearing the story about Zog the Caveman's mastodon hunt, to the Hero's Journey, to that time the dwarf missed his saving throw and got turned into stone, we are story-dwelling beings. History isn't about facts and dates (something high school teachers never seem to get), it's about the story. How was America founded? What happened to the Roman Empire? We, as a species, translate our experiences into story.

It surprises me that there isn't more fiction inspired by roleplaying games. I would think almost every roleplaying game property would come with a fiction line automatically. I recall having hundreds of ideas for Star Trek that could have easily become scripts. My favorite was The Iconian Codex, which combined elements of Lovecraft and Star Trek. That would have been cool. Anyway, you'd think that game designers would write up their own roleplaying campaigns as stories. I wonder why they don't.

This, I think, is why the videogame experience will never top the table-top game experience. In the former, you're playing through someone else's story. You're experiencing story in a particular way. In the latter, you make the story. You determine the path. Death or glory are in your hands. I think it's the reason we play roleplaying games. I remember sitting around a table, and telling my character's story; his reactions to the situation the gamemaster (as fate) was throwing at us. It was a game, but it was something more.

As for me, I'm going to continue approaching my current project as a novel, and then take that work and turn it into a roleplaying game. I think it's a pretty sweet idea.

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