Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Gaming VS Writing

First a little bookkeeping. I've been trying to do weekly posts. However, it's now clear that this won't be possible--at least not for the next month or so. My new job is keeping me very busy--good busy, but busy none the less. And this blog has a lower priority than my "real" writing. Still, I will try to get something out every other week, if I can.

This time let's look at some of the differences between writing (or movies, or other art forms) and gaming.

I have argued that looking at other media can help us learn to run better games. Here, I'm primarily talking about story telling media (books, movies, plays, etc). We can use these successful stories as a model, a guide for our games to follow. Is it a perfect model? No, of course not. There is always the risk of stretching a metaphor too far. But, I am a strong believer in the power of analogy.

However, it is also important to examine the differences between writing and gaming. This helps ground us. It lets us see which techniques we can most likely port from one medium to the other. But, it also serves another, more important role. Contradiction is almost as powerful as analogy. We can learn a lot about gaming by examining what it is not.

I have picked six areas where I feel games differ from other stories. This is, undoubtedly, an incomplete list. But, I hope it's a good start.

Audience driven stories.

This is one of the most-obvious differences. Even with the most autocratic GM, the players still contribute to the story. They decide which doors to kick in, which weapon to swing, which monster to kill. They choose whether to drink the healing potion this round, or risk waiting. OK, it might not be the greatest contribution, but the GM cannot drive the story alone.

In story driven games, the player's role is even more pronounced. Character's decisions shape the plot. Players often influence the scenery or backstory; they may even get to narrate parts of the story.

As a result, the GM cannot create a plot outline--not the way a writer might. Sure, the GM can create ideas for scenes. The GM can develop backstory, can define the goals of the antagonists and allies. The GM can even drive the story forward using the old carrot and stick--promising rewards, then hitting the players with complications. But, at the end of the day, the GM must respond to the character's actions. You must go where the characters' lead.

Some authors claim to lose control over their characters. Let me assure you, GMing is different--not even the same order of magnitude.

No editing.

A game moves steadily forward. There's little chance to go back and edit. This means, the story is raw and unpolished. No matter how many notes the GM makes, the story will have flaws: problems with consistency, problems with NPC motivation, structural problems with the plot. Sure, we don't have to worry about grammar or spelling, but that's really only the surface. The structural problems are more important.

Most authors will tell you that first drafts suck. Gaming is an endless first draft. We cannot hold these stories to the same standards we do other media. And, as gamers, we give gaming a pass. Consciously or unconsciously, we come to the table with a greater willingness to suspend disbelief. That's just the way the dice roll.

Amateurs create the stories

Let's face it, there are few professional GMs in this world. This relates to the lack of editing, and tends to further aggravate the very same problems.

However, some people love amateur productions (fan fiction, movies, theatre, whatever). While there are a few I have enjoyed, I tend to find much of it disappointing. I often enjoy amateur musicians. I usually enjoy amateur theatre. In the first case, there is no real story. In the second, a professional wrote the story, amateurs just performed it.

Creating a solid, quality story is hard. Even the pros fail occasionally. So why do I enjoy the stories created at the table. First, I am an active participant--that means I'm more invested in the story. Second, I enjoy the social contact with my friends. However, too many gaming stories also fall flat for me.

Multiple main characters

Most stories have a single main character, or at least focus on one character at a time. Your average gaming group has three to six players--meaning three to six main characters. And PCs usually travel in packs.

This creates a difficult, nonstandard story structure. We aren't very familiar with stories about multiple, concurrent main characters--which means we have few, if any, models. Also, it is always hard to find a good balance between the goals of the individuals and the goals of the group. Too much emphasis on the individual, and the story fragments. Too little, and the characters loose their free will--players start violating their character concept just to keep the group together.

Players compete for screen time

Related to the last issue, in most books, a character doesn't get bored waiting for his moment in the spotlight. Players, however, do. This sometimes leads to players competing for attention. This seems particularly prevalent in larger gaming groups.

Interestingly, I've been in groups that encouraged the players to roleplay among themselves. While the GM was dealing with one character, the others would be chatting (in character), playing out good character-building scenes, or planning out our next move.

However, in a more recent group, the GM got very upset when I tried to have a side scene. He felt it was distracting and rude. While I preferred the first style, I do see the second GM's point.

Roleplaying is a social activity

The social side of RPGs rarely gets the attention it deserves. There are good things and bad things about taking part in a social activity. On the good side, it is fun to interact with our friends. On the bad side, we often adjust our behavior to fit our group's implicit social contract. When dealing with simple issues (like burping at the dinner table), this is usually quite painless. But, collaborating on a personal expression of creativity can get thornier.

This subject is much too big for one post alone. Suffice it to say, if the players are trying to tell different stories (or at least incompatible stories), then the game will fail.

What about you? Do you agree or disagree with these observations? Can you think of anything I missed? Please continue this discussion in the comments.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Social Activity: comment

Ack! And the game can get scary when players are trying to resolve a psychological conflict by beating on the other players!

-Still Recovering, MI

5:05 AM  
Blogger Rich said...

Yes, indeed.

I just started reading Ron Edward's third supplement his Sorcery game, Sex and Sorcery. It has an excellent discussion about dysfunctional social dynamics--particularly those involving sex and gender.

Actually, the book covers about a hundred interesting things. Much of it is a bit heavy handed, but it's still thought provoking.

Makes me remember some of my worst gaming experiences.

5:30 PM  

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