See Page XX – a Column on Roleplaying

If I Had Half A Million Dollars
By Robin D. Laws

I am often asked why I don’t go the indie route, setting up my own game company so that I can 100% own the rights to my work—gaining, in the process, the chance to spend the bulk of my time dealing with layout, marketing, print buying, website design, convention booth wrangling, and the paperwork entailed in running a small business. And by often, I mean, there’s one guy who poses this question whenever my name comes up in a particular forum.

Several answers to this point come to mind, the most succinct being: “As soon as you secure that MacArthur Foundation grant for me, dude.”

However, if I did win a so-called genius grant—which would have to happen in an alternate dimension anyhow, as they’re only available to US citizens—I still wouldn’t use the time it bought me to produce my own indie games.

Instead, I’d devote myself to a vastly more unmarketable pursuit: the analysis of story mechanisms as they appear in fictional sources, with an eye to their application in roleplaying.

Over my decade and a half as an RPG designer, I’ve learned a couple of lessons. One early assumption that experience has beaten out of me is that we all have easy access to an ingrained story sense. I believed this because people in general, and genre fans in particular, consume a huge amount of narrative material in the course of their lives. In the case of the adventure genre material that is our hobby’s bread and butter, that entertainment is boldly formulaic. By a process of osmosis, I figured, anyone with the wherewithal to run an RPG session has its basic tropes and rhythms imprinted on them. Through repetition, I theorized, we have all gained a feel for pacing, dramatic interest and narrative rhythm. We may not be conscious of it, but when placed in the position to improvise solutions to story problems as they arise in play, we can lean back, trust the Force, and confidently wing our way to compelling, entertaining solutions.

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In thinking this, I was projecting massively. I may be blessed and/or cursed with an analytical mind that sees the gears and superstructures at work while reading a novel or watching a movie. That doesn’t mean everyone else is—or should want to be.

As much as it might interfere with one’s ability to relax and enjoy mediocre entertainment, being able to see authorial technique at work is a great boon to one’s technique as a story-oriented GM. Like any art form, story creation (in whatever medium) draws on both inspiration and analysis. The analytical side can be taught. But before we can teach it, we have to learn it. We must actually the perform in-depth study relevant to the roleplaying medium.

Roleplaying has given rise to several streams of critical theory. Among their deficiencies, one is most relevant to story-oriented GMs and players. That would be the the failure to start at the beginning by grappling with the broader narrative tradition. RPG theory tends to start from scratch, developing a jargon and a critical ideology, as if roleplaying is the first and only story form. We need to do our homework, starting with Aristotle’s Poetics, continuing on through the development of the novel and then to film and television. Unfortunately, the closer we get to our present-day sources of inspiration, the academy  increasingly lets us down. In the days when literary scholars were interested in breaking down literary technique, genre material was not considered worthy of serious notice2. These days you’ll find more focus on pop culture, but the angles taken on it are primarily thematic. For that reason, we may need to perform a basic analysis of the underlying rules of genre fiction before taking the next step: developing applied techniques to make our games more fun and exciting.

Without going in and looking for lessons on a detailed, nuts and bolts level, our theories will remain abstract and hard to apply.

In addition to analyzing stories told in other media, we could also record and study actual play sessions, looking for the moments that work, finding explanations for why they work, and developing a shared vocabulary to communicate those techniques to others.

Developing a common set of assumptions about technique, as you find in, say, the improv comedy tradition, will be of enormous assistance to game designers. We can then start to assume that the GMs and players reading our material are operating from a common grounding in technique. Game books are created under space constraints. Without these constraints, the books would be too expensive to buy and too heavy to carry. Most rules books could do with a 25% higher word count, all devoted to GM advice. But GM advice and examples are always the first things that get cut for space. The experienced game designer learns not to write too much of this material in the first place, knowing there’s no room for it. With a common corpus of techniques to fall back on, the lack of such material would be less of an impediment to a game’s successful use.

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Over at my blog I’ve made a start toward this aim by breaking down Hamlet beat-by-beat. The process is the literary equivalent of pure research, in that I have no idea what I’m going to conclude. My practical aim is to study how scenes of emotional drama, which roleplaying doesn’t do especially well, might be translated into a universal system of some sort. What shape that might take remains to be seen. So far my simple axes for describing beats (dramatic vs. procedural, suspense vs. choice, persuasion vs. drama) have mostly held up, while yielding certain surprises along the way. Because I can only justify this as a fragment of my blogging time, it’s taking a long time to finish.

Which I why I need that grant money. Until then, I’ll just have to content myself by finding a way to get paid for the time I spend writing smart-ass replies to forum posts. Hmm, what if I used them as ledes for my See P. XX columns…?

1 This of course assumes a GM who wants to play in a story-oriented style. None of these concerns are especially relevant to others interested in a world-modeling logic or predominantly tactical play. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

2 An ironic consequence of this is that many of today’s serial genre fiction is criticized, or even produced, according to the inapplicable rules of drama. Iconic characters are forced into the structures appropriate to dramatic ones, with unsatisfying results.