Saturday, April 29, 2006

A Gamer's Manifesto

I am a man wearing a million hats. Some of the most important include: father, husband, world traveler, computer programmer, student, ex-game designer, freelance writer, avid gamer and struggling fiction writer. The last one is the most relevant here. For a long time, my writing has suffered. Between changing diapers and studying for midterms, I had very little time or energy left. Oh, I would get the occasional word on paper (or pixel on screen, I guess), but my writing took an unfortunate back seat to life.

About six months ago, I decided that enough was enough. I took a careful look at my priorities and tried to refocus my energy on writing. It still suffers--there is never enough time. But I was getting real work done again.

As part of this process, I started reading (or in some cases, rereading) books about writing. I carefully examined books on character, dialog, writing scenes and plots. It was in the middle of a book on creating plots that inspiration struck. I realized two things. First, many of these techniques could easily be used to improve the quality of the stories told in role-playing games. In many cases I was already familiar with the technique, but I had never considered it in the context of an RPG. Second, most games include some systems that actively inhibit the creation of good plots.

Lets take a short detour to look at role-playing games in general. Role-playing is an amazing hobby. Games offer so much: the chance to explore other times and other places (or times and places that never were), mysteries to be solved, monsters to be slain, treasures to be found, stories to be told. Different people are attracted to different parts of the gaming crazy-quilt. Some like the tactical challenge of combat. Others seek pure escapism. Some come simply as a social activity. And some, like myself, come looking for a story.

I would like to thank Ron Edwards at The Forge ( for introducing me to this idea. I may not always agree with his divisions or definitions, but I think the basic essence is correct. As a gamer, it is important to understand what you want from the game, and then to surround yourself with like-minded (or at least compatible) players.

So, when I talk about gaming, I will pretend that I am speaking to a like-minded (or at least open-minded) community. My comments will come from my own personal bias. I am strictly interested in improving the story-content of games. When I say, for example, "Most advancement systems are broken", that is really just a short hand for, "If your primary goal is to create well-plotted stories, then most advancement systems are broken." From a game-system standpoint the same advancement system may play an integral psychological role in motivating players, keeping them interested in the game, and perhaps a bit addicted to it. That, however, is not my primary interest.

Mostly, I do not want to get mired in a my-style-of-gaming-is-better-than-yours argument. There's enough room in the hobby for all of us.

Unfortunately the definition of "story" closely resembles the supreme court's definition of "pornography", I know it when I see it. A lot of ideas huddle together under the great story umbrella--some of them are contradictory. That's OK. Just like there's no universally perfect game, there's also no universally perfect story. Here's a quick sampling of things I think are important from an RPG point of view. This list will undoubtedly evolve over time.

* Stories are not a random stringing together of ideas and incidences. Stories have plots and structure.

* As a player, my character should be at the center of the story. His actions (and most importantly his decisions) should matter. He should leave footprints in the sand.

* My character should have free will. This does not mean unlimited free will--after all, I (as a supposedly real person) don't have unlimited free will. My real-life choices are constrained by laws and the necessities of life--as well as a host of other artificial constructs I have built up in my head.

* My failures should move the story forward in interesting ways. Death is a generally uninteresting consequence; it usually indicates the end of a story (at least as far as that character is concerned). Being captured and thrown into a dank, smelly, roach-filled prison has so many more opportunities to move the story forward.

* The GM should respect the image I am trying to create for my character. He should not violate that image lightly.

* Stories should resonate with the players (including the GM) in meaningful ways.

* Stories should challenge the players (including the GM).

* RPG stories are social events, and the social side should not be ignored.

* Most importantly, stories should be fun.

My list focuses primarily on gaming as a player. I find I'm much picker as a player. I could GM for a pack of wild dogs and have a good time. But as a player, it's harder.

I have played a few games that exceed these expectations, several that just manage to meet them, and quite a few that come close but somehow fall short. Unfortunately, there are also a number that have failed completely. I hope, by examining how stories are produced in other media, I can improve these odds. I hope by committing these ideas to the web--and by allowing the community to poke and prod at them--I can make them clearer in my own head. If more people become happier in their games, then my mission here is done.