Game Writing (No, not that kind – the other kind)

Whenever I start a new game as a player, I pick up a new notebook. I really adore Moleskine for a lot of reasons, but in large part because I can pick an evocative design that helps me put another pin into who my character is. When I played through Shattered Star, I used a variation on this one that I received as a gift. Going back through it, I can see my wizard’s progression from 4th level (I came in late) to 17th, and the myriad adventures we had, as well as the loot we gathered – as a devout Abadarian, I took charge of tracking treasure.

As part of the TRPG experience, writing can feel like a bit of a chore. It happens in addition to your other responsibilities at the game table, and sometimes outside of game time. The notebook becomes one more thing to keep track of. If you spend a lot of time taking notes in your work or at school, it can make the gaming experience feel more like work, which is not what we’re after. However, if the fantastic notebooks I linked to above are not enough inducement (and if they are not, I don’t know if we can be friends), let me give you a few reasons to scribe some of your experiences in game.

1) Institutional Memory – someone at the table really ought to be taking notes, because eventually this is going to happen:

Player: “We go back to that guy.”

GM: “Which guy?”

Other Player: “The guy…the guy who knew the thing.”

GM: (Searching his notes and eyeing his players like the shifty characters they are) “Not really sure what you are talking about.”

If you make notes of, at a minimum, the places you go and the people you meet there (those you have left alive, at any rate), these conversations don’t happen. It is one of the limitations of the TRPG format that we can have encounters with people whom we would clearly remember if we had actually encountered them, and lose all knowledge of that person over the course of the week or two between games.

The non-roleplaying part of institutional memory has to do with a subject that may rub a few folks, especially my fellow GMs the wrong way – extensive notes might reveal the cheat codes. TRPGs are not famous for them, but there are several adventures that have the one NPC, the key location, or the mega-important thingamajig, that can make a lot of the game much easier. If you learn that the temple of amber waves of grain has a sheaf of wheat that can scatter incorporeal undead to the wind, then spend six months fighting the knights of purple mountains before having to face the hall of the ghosts of TV-seasons past, you will likely forget about that sheaf of wheat…unless you wrote it down. Sometimes games do this deliberately, sometimes not so much, but what the designers and their nefarious GM agents put out there is for your use, so long as you remember where you left it.

2) Pattern recognition – This one is like the cheat code, only a little deeper. Game writers, be they professional or poor unpaid souls, have their go-to challenges. Additionally, sometimes game writers play with themes that are never made explicit to the players (often due to some piece of lore about the dungeon/nation/evil theme park that the PCs simply don’t have access to). Making notes about what you encounter and under what circumstances can then have a two-fold benefit. For the story hunter, it reveals a bit of the plot that was never directly spoken of. For the game player, it can give a hint as to what to expect and how to prepare. Anything that can prove of benefit to both the role-player and the game-player is double plus good.

3) Help your GM out – I expounded last week on the virtues of supporting your GM in your mutual quest for fun. Making notes on where you went, whom you met, and what you did is a huge boon to a GM who’s trying to track monster hit points, XP, and other shenanigans. Obviously, the GM should also be tracking where you are in the story, but having a second set of notes on what has transpired makes that job immeasurably easier.

Bear in mind that no one ever needs to read these notes but you, so feel free to write what you want in a way that you can understand. It doesn’t need to be a constant activity – writing will probably come to a stop during combat – and you should always pace yourself to keep it from feeling like a chore. Scribing your character’s adventures, even in shorthand little notes, adds one more artifact to your game experience, and will hopefully enhance your fun.

The Hazards of Positive Thinking

If Superman did not exist today, could we even invent him or would he be anything other than the half dozen or so postmodern critiques of Superman that have appeared from the pens of cynical authors? Role-playing games often end up trailing a lot of modern conceptions, in large part out of an overblown sense of nostalgia, but one postmodern concept keeps coming back to bite us, and that bite seems to get a little sharper every time: moral relativism.

The grand old dame in the room, D&D, is the very essence of positivist morality. The alignment system doesn’t simply exist as a roleplaying guide, but as something that exerts itself within the game. Ironically, the concept of evil as a force unto itself has even been heretical in the Catholic Church for 1500 years, but it’s been part of the D&D canon since they laid down the concept of detect evil. Evil and Good are forces that can be measured, weighed, invoked, or even abjured. As 20th century writers became more and more relativist in their outlook, this has become an increasingly significant challenge to game writers. I mentioned the problems that some gamers have with the misogynist agrarian god, Erastil, in Paizo’s home setting of Golarion, but the problem of positivist morality has raised its head in other places as well. Every time a writer takes on depicting the culture of an “evil” race – Drow, Orcs, Hobgoblins, etc. – the question inevitably rises again about how, where, and why it is justifiable to wander into the subterranean or fortress homes of these creatures, kill them all, and take their stuff. R.A. Salvatore has started digging into this a little in the ongoing adventures of Drizzt Do’Urden, whose dwarven allies have begun working out the terms of living alongside orcs, rather than hunting them all down. Such themes are interesting and show a broader panoply of moral consideration, but also diverge from that fundamental truth of the game – evil exists. If evil exists, is it ok to simply let it exist? We have, fortunately for the sociologist-gamer, come out of the time period where bestiary entries included such eugenic gems as “always chaotic evil,” as though the forces of anarchy and diabolism were encoded in the DNA, but we seem to keep whistling past the graveyard in the hopes that our XP-winning exercises in genocide don’t earn us reputations as psychopaths.

So alignment is a problem, at least if you’re not a believer in absolute terms of right and wrong, but D&D is hardly the only offender in this class, and the ever-growing field of what should be considered rhetorical has raised certain questions on the nature of the dramatic story itself. Vampire: The Masquerade seemed to postulate that a lack of empathy and kindness eventually led to degeneration into cannibalistic psychosis, but that only seemed to apply to Vampires – Werewolves and Mages were free to be unfeeling twerps – so maybe it’s a proto-Twilight thing. Mage: The Ascension was perhaps the closest to modern academic conceptions of truth and fact, arguing that reality itself was consensual. The problem with absolute relativity, at least in an RPG, is the implication for agency: It is, in theory, legitimate for me to defend my own agency and resist forces that attempt to impose their will on me, but is it ever legitimate for me to impose my will on another, even through something as seemingly innocuous as argument? If not, is any dramatic interaction involving competing drives morally justifiable?

If postmodern ethics make most of world history appear to be the acts of sociopathic hegemons, it makes most RPGs appear to be the power fantasies of would-be petty tyrants. To that end, I say – to the rubbish heap with most of postmodern ethics. We are perfectly capable of establishing ethics that respect the agency of most, while restraining those who would do us or others harm. Right and wrong, good and evil – these need not be punchlines for the “evolved” thinker (who is facing his or her own existential crisis as the notion of “progress” is challenged by the same critiques that launched the term “progressive”). We can, and we should, evaluate and re-evaluate what we believe in light of new evidence, but that doesn’t mean that the newest thought or critique invalidates all that has come before. The positivist outlook does carry some baggage, and introducing concepts of our own presumptions of intolerance in the form of orcs, kobolds, and the like can make for really good stories. We need not, however, dispense with the entire notion of right and wrong – that’s a baby that need not go out with the eugenic bathwater.

Book Corner: The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop RPGs

Jennifer Grouling Cover’s The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games is an outstanding effort to open the doors to authentic rhetorical and sociological study of the genre system. She effectively challenges writers and scholars who have labeled TRPGs as non-narrative or simply an antecedent genre to Computer RPGs, deftly critiquing the value-based progressive mindset, which dismisses that which came before as inferior. It still only serves as an opening effort, however, and several of the areas she tries to explore are limited by her own RPG experience, as well as her choice to focus exclusive on a single Role-Playing Game – Dungeons and Dragons, 3rd Edition.
She begins by addressing a tendency in the literature that has gone before to dismiss Tabletop RPGs as, well, something that has gone before and is no longer really a thing. It’s a natural result of all the Computer RPG developers who talk about the influence that Dungeons and Dragons had on their conceptions of gameplay. The problem is that not only have Tabletop RPGs not gone the way of the dodo, the forms that sprung out of D&D’s influence leave certain capabilities of the Tabletop RPG behind, such as the potential for true narrative agency on the part of the players. Lest anyone think that the book is solely for academic analysis of TRPGs, there are plenty of things players and GMs can benefit from in the text. The discussion of varying levels of authorship in an RPG narrative could make us all a lot more self-reflective in how we’re building stories when we play.
The book does suffer from a limited worldview. Cover played in a campaign of 3rd Edition D&D, and in a homebrew world with a plot devised specifically for the players involved. Most of us have had this sort of experience, with varying levels of success, at one time or another; however, I’m not at all certain that it is representative of the typical TRPG experience, to say nothing of the typical D&D or Pathfinder experience. Narrative agency is in short supply in the typical Pathfinder Society module – she references RPGA, which she found unsatisfying, but PFS even removes the aggregate effect the RPGA allowed the players to have on the storyline. I’ve previously talked about how D20 is an enemy-focused game, which can make the PCs somewhat plug-and-play. It’s interesting that she brings up the old Choose Your Own Adventure stories, of which video games end up being just a highly elaborate and quite pretty version. I think pre-written modules, and even Paizo’s Adventure Paths, probably fall somewhere on the spectrum between a pick-and-play gamebook and a truly autonomous narrative, but that’s hard to evaluate without study of some non-d20 games.
In our author’s defense, it would have been a much larger book to take on the entire genre system of Tabletop RPGs, but I think her work definitely points the way for deeper exploration. First might be acknowledging that TRPGs are a genre system – while TRPGs have several similarities between them, even the reason for playing can vary by game, and the way in which design questions are answered leads me to believe that we won’t see the whole picture if we call TRPGs a single genre. Call of Cthulhu is only 7 years younger than hoary old D&D, and posits a completely different narrative experience from its slightly older fantasy cousin. How we’ve developed conceptions of narrative control, and how the pendulum has swung in the industry between role-playing and game-playing are both threads that could be pulled on for future study. The study of TRPGs also presents a tremendous opportunity for anyone interested in how negotiated outcomes work within rules structures, or how narratives develop in collaborative environments. For gamers, it’s a chance to peer a little deeper into the meaning of what you’re doing those evenings with your friends and your dice.

Support Your Local GM

There’s a ton of advice out there for gamemasters. The two books I most immediately recommend are Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering  and John Wick’s Play Dirty . Beyond that, however, you can find blog posts, Google Docs, and stone tablets replete with suggestions on how GMs can make a game fun and engaging for their players.

Today, I am going to turn that around.

Perhaps it’s because of the term, “Non-Player Character,” or maybe it’s due to the simple linguistic dichotomy between “player” and “GM,” but I think we often forget that the GM is also a player in this game. Even as we might expect a GM to be the one to make rules decisions and lay out the world in which the story will be told, we, as players, are not doing our part if we’re not taking a moment periodically to consider what we’re doing to make the game fun for the GM. “Make sure everyone has fun” is not the sole responsibility of the gamemaster (although they do carry a larger share of that burden), but a responsibility of everyone at the table.

I generally try to avoid broad pronouncements of how to run or play a game, but I feel pretty confident in this one: if your play at the table is ruining any other person at the table’s fun, you’re doing it wrong. That includes the GM. The notion of an adversarial relationship between the GM and the players has been with us since the early days of D&D and it’s toxic. Both sides are absolutely dependent on one another to make the story happen. RPG groups, like any team, are sensitive to shocks caused by changes in personnel, so understanding that each person in the group adds their own ingredient to the stew you like so much every session is critical to getting us to work together.

I know, I know. “So what?” I hear you ask. So, I want to toss out a few canards that get tossed at GMs as a matter of course and spin them around to present them as concepts for the player.

1) Listen to your GM. It is true that, as the group’s collective senses within the game world, the GM may occasionally be deceitful in order to reflect the deceitful nature of an environment. Outside of this, however, the GM is not usually trying to trick you. Pay attention to the way scenes are described and questions are asked – there’s probably a lot of information that can point you towards the most interesting answer. It might not even be the answer the GM is thinking of, but knowing where the GM has started from gives the group the power to go to a place everyone is interested in going.

2) Know your rules. It is specifically the GM’s job to have a good grasp of any and all rules that may come up during a play session, or have a good idea of where to find the answer when corner cases arise. Players, then, should focus on knowing the rules pertinent to their own characters. Having responsibility for one character actually allows the player to dig a little deeper and know that character’s rules backward and forward. If five players each know four feats and what they do, that alleviates the GM’s need to know 20 feats off the top of his or her head, leaving more mental space for cool story things. Internet forums and adversarial GMs can get into a lot of what the rules say you can’t do, but it’s the player’s job to know what they can do inside and out. Making yourself an expert on your own PC dramatically broadens your possibilities.

3) Don’t fear improvisation. One of the critical advantages that Tabletop RPGs have over their Computer cousins is the ability of the players to improvise. If the coding in The Witcher says that there’s nothing more over that fence, the character stops. If a ledge is too high to reach by jumping, you must generally find the way the computer has laid out for you, or you can’t go there. At a game table, the rules provide constraints, but are rarely so straight-jacketing that things within the realm of physics are absolutely impossible. This is part of why knowing the rules for your own character is so vital. That knowledge forms the basis for a thousand ideas: If my PC can do this, and the environment is that, then I should reasonably be able to do this. That single line of thought has launched a thousand shocked GM faces. GMs who are following any of the plethora of GM-advice columns will, if you have made a reasoned argument, let you take your shot.

4) Don’t fear the obvious answer. This one seems so simple, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t include it for the legion of players who never want to go through the front door. Sometimes, it’s OK to go through the front door! There are benefits, both dramatic and mechanical, to inventiveness, but don’t be afraid to use the rules as they’re written and to follow the plot where it wants you to go. Even as your own expertise on your character can help the GM free up mental space to dream up cool stuff, thinking deeply about obvious answers can lead to new revelations about both your character and the rules that are going to pay dividends down the road.

Bearing in mind that the GM is a player too means that a lot of the advice we usually aim at GMs is equally applicable to the players. I feel like I need to come up with a new taxonomy to replace the GM/Player divide in order to capture this notion, but that may be some time coming. In the meantime, help your GMs out! It’s the sort of thing that pays off huge in the long run.

Pause and Reflect

Aside from being the title of one of the first books on punctuation, this shall also serve as a notice that the blog is going (well, has gone, let’s be honest) on hiatus for much of August while I get spun up for a new college semester and get some of my other writing obligations wrangled.

On a bright note, I expect my course on Institutional Historical Rhetorics to give me plenty to blog about in the fall.

Enjoy the rest of your summer.

How much choice?

I’m finishing up my read of The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games and I am determined not to go into my thoughts on it too deeply until I’m done. One of the things Jennifer Cover says however has stuck in my mind and, as my internal editor will murder me if I talk about a book I haven’t finished, I want to talk a little bit about player agency.

It’s safe to say that players of Tabletop RPGs can have more narrative agency than players of computer or platform RPGs, but I think that “can” is really important here. The wildly successful Paizo Adventure Path model is making a statement about how much narrative agency a lot of players are looking for, and, quite frankly, it’s not much. The Adventure Path promises an interesting and engaging story, but the trade-off is that the players will walk the path laid out for them by the books, as put forward by their GM. That, in my mind, makes the AP only a step or two away from a Choose Your Own Adventure book – even when there are multiple roads to Rome, how free are you if all the roads still lead there?

But is that even a bad thing? The AP definitely falls on the storytelling side of the telling/chasing divide, but as long as we’re all entertained, how critical is it that my character can’t really go haring off to explore things that beyond the scope of the adventure? Is it enough to know that I could do so theoretically?

This relates even to GMs who write up narratives for the PCs to interact with. If I present a villain and a dastardly plan, I do so with the implicit understanding that thwarting said villain’s plan is how we’re going to achieve a game session or three that will prove enjoyable and satisfying for everyone. How much choice do players need to have for them to consider that they have agency? Do they need to have absolute freedom? What about freedom of option in negotiating obstacles? In interacting with GM characters?

As I’ve mentioned before, some games turn this absolutely on its head. Houses of the Blooded, as well as the derivative games John Wick has written under the same engine, make narrative control dynamic, meaning the GM could well be wasting their time in developing too much story. Is Pathfinder and D&D’s dominance of the RPG market a nod to tradition or an indication that players are only interested in having so much agency in exchange for a lively narrative? Interestingly, what might this portend for computer RPGs, like Dragon Age or The Witcher? Such games give an illusion of narrative agency, but it’s definitely an illusion – the player’s options are constrained by the code and the game engine. On the other hand, how real is the agency in a game like D&D, where a d20 spends a lot of time telling you that you’ve come up short?

Classy Rhetoric, Part 2

On Monday, I wrote a little bit about how class systems inform and/or limit rhetorical options in RPGs. As someone who loves to talk, I often find myself pushing against these limits in-game, in large part because I make arguments that the other players and the GM find compelling, whether I’m playing a persuasive PC or not. This opens a second can of worms in the world of interpersonal interaction in RPGs. Several folks who replied to Monday’s blog mentioned how they felt that such interactions should be a judgment call between the GM and the player, or how they would insist on quality roleplaying to back up any die roll. I used to be a member of that camp myself, until I had a very important fact fall on my head during a campaign and nearly cost me a friendship.

Shy people play RPGs too.

As I mentioned in an older blog, requiring eloquence or drama from a player when engaged in interaction is a blow to player agency. We don’t require our players to simulate the physical skills their characters have, so why do so many of us expect shy or hesitant players to suddenly flower if they choose to play an eloquent character? I think part of it comes from the aspects of the game we expect to be a simulation and those we don’t. Outside of some really strange LARPs, players will not be climbing walls. But around a table, players can speak or argue as they will (and do, sometimes in-game, sometimes out).

Relatedly, what are we allowing those players who are experienced speakers to get away with? How many of us have had a player take a character with an abysmal charisma rating, however that is measured in your game of choice, but then depend on their own natural talent for arguing and conversing to paper over that problem at the table? I’m probably one of the worst people to argue this from a hypocrisy perspective, but the reality is that allowing a player’s talent with words to create in-game effects without some in-game mechanics to back it up is just as unfair as it would be if players couldn’t have their characters wield weapons that they themselves could not lift and use with skill.

I think the answer has got to split the difference at some point. We want our shy friends to feel free to try new things and stretch outside of their comfort zone without feeling as though their lack of experience or confidence is going to hamstring their character. We also want the big talkers to be able to do their big talking, because that’s part of their fun and it generally helps with immersion. The big talkers, however, need to marry that eloquence up with an in-game stat or two, and our shy friends will still need to at least give a roadmap of how their argument might proceed. This is how, I think, we can protect both player agency and character integrity.