Thursday, August 27, 2009

Role to hit...

I learned to tell stories from my dad, who was quite the raconteur when the mood struck him. I learned to love stories by reading a lot of them. I learned about characterization and what made a story drag you to the edge of your chair by participating in them. As if I haven't already made it clear that I'm a nerd, today I shall remove any lingering doubts. Today we're going to talk about... (deep breath) role-playing games.
I'm sure I have a pocket protector around here somewhere.

A table in a basement surrounded by young men, soda cans and empty pizza boxes. This raucous gathering was sterotypically the smarter kids from their school who found common cause in their esoterica. Mostly young men, they gather to breathe life back into a faded mythos governed by obscure rules and the chance roll of polyhedral dice... role playing games. About the only legal activity in the high schools of America circa 1980 that had any air of mystery about it. Movies and news reports tried to link role playing games to all sorts of satanic pseudo-mystical nonsense while most of the players viewed it in much the same way their fathers viewed Friday night poker games.

Most people know about Dungeons & Dragons, but there were far more than that: Top Secret, Vampire the Masquerade, Ninjas & Super Spies, Shadowrun, Battletech... the list seems virtually endless and at one time or another and I played them all.

What does this have to do with storytelling?

Everything and nothing.

It's axiomatic that the story looks different from the inside than it will look from the outside. I can tell you stories about things that really happened to me in the back-country during my mountaineering and backpacking days and make you laugh every time. Stories that were frightening, uncomfortable and dangerous when I was living them. I can tell you stories about bad guys thwarted, secret plans stolen and dragons slain in imaginary games and get much the same reaction. But in neither case - the real or the imagined - will it be the same for your reader if you re-tell my story to someone else. It's inherently different because I was there. I was standing in front of that bear or staring over that ledge or slaying that imaginary dragon.

The dramatic tension comes from the experience. The story would not be the same had I not subjected myself to the whims of chance, the roll of the die. And since you didn't experience it except through my narrative, you will tell it differently and with less immediacy than I.

That isn't to say that I want you to run out and throw yourself in front of a bear, or get buried in an avalanche. You don't need to do that in order to write about them. Nor do you need to put together a role-playing game based upon the novel you're writing.

Roleplaying games taught me to have an experience that didn't really happen, to watch it unfold through the eyes of a fictional character. Even if I didn't know what it felt like first-hand to stare down the snout of a black bear or free fall into nothing on the end of a bungee cord, I could create a semblence of that experiencve because I've learned the skill of putting myself into the head of a person that does not exist.

In Telling Lies for Fun & Profit, Lawrence Block talks about how finite even the most compelling life is in terms of storytelling potential. Even if you lived a life of danger as an international jewel thief, you are still - as Block puts it - sitting on a raft in cold waters, chopping bits off the back-end to feed the fire you've started at the front. At some point you will run out of boat. Being able to live through the eyes of an imaginary person allows me to build a bigger boat, feeding the fires with imaginary planks.

One last thing about lessons role-playing games can teach us and then I'll shut up about them...

In Across the Crowded Marketplace, I dwelt on the definitive archetypes, the roles your characters play in the stories they inhabit and how important it is that your readers be able to recognize them on a cultural level. At the core of that is a crucial understanding of your character and what role they fill in the story.
Part of this is the ability to play them consistently through the entire story. If one ear is lower than the other on page one, then on page 220, those ears had better still be assymetrical. I keep track of this using something else role-playing games taught me... the character sheet. Height, weight, eye color, hair color, ethnicity, skin tone, education, distinguishing features, idiosyncrocies... all on an easy-to-reference sheet of paper. This sounds fussy and even anal, and I suppose that it is. It also keeps my legendary absent-mindedness from sidelining my writing while i search the manuscript for some tiny detail from the first chapter.
Role-playing games take place in worlds that are fully-realized entities apart from ours, a shared landscape of the imagination replete with maps, politics and adventures in the offing. they are a place where we can step into other skins and other lives. A similarly-realized world should unfold each time I open my laptop and type "Chapter One" at the top of a page.

I owe it to my world and to my characters to know them well enough to be able to tell their stories as if I'd been there too.

Scott Walker Perkins writes literary thrillers and novels of suspense woven from the threads of history. His current novel is The Palimpsest and he is working on another tentatively titled 42 Lines. Contact Me:
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  1. There's an unfinished thought in paragraph 9.

    What do you think about diceless games? Did you ever play Amber?

    One of the interesting trends in the past few years in the RPG community has been away from "games-as-frustrated-novels." I.e., if you want to fill your game book with epic backstory, compelling NPCs, etc., then you should just go write a book, because you really want to just tell a story rather than give other people tools to tell their stories.

    It's made for a lot of streamlined, highly awesome games that basically give the players forks and light sockets and tell them to go have fun. Two that I'd recommend are Dogs In The Vineyard and The Shab-Al-Hiri Roach. There's a great book about this trend called Play Unsafe, which is about what the title says.

  2. I fixed it, thanks, Kevin. Weird pasting error for Notebook?

    I played Amber and found it passable, but heavily dependent upon the abilities of the game master (I forget what title Amber bestowed) to spin a compelling yarn. But even though the 'hanging on a diceroll' tension was somewhat evocative of the 'hanging on the end of a too-short rope' experience, I don't want to put too much emphasis on the dice-rolling 'game of chance' portion of the games. I certainly didn't learn a damn thing about conveying combat to my readers from all the dice-rolling and chart-consultation that role-playing combat usually devolved into. It's about telling a compelling story, putting yourself into your character's experiences so that you can have some hope of doing the same for your reader.

    The dramatic tensions that are necessary to keep role-players interested in a game have to be balanced between action and storytelling just as with any narrative. I always found the novel tie-in modules that TSR put out to be intensely boring and unsatisfactory as shared storytelling experiences.

    While I haven't read or played the games you mentioned, I agree in principle with the approach to creating these shared experiences as a novel we're all writing together rather than something they're just an audience for.

  3. Yeah, I think most of the things that I still find fascinating about the hobby after all these years (20+, yikes) is the dynamism. Every experience is different because it's shared and collaborative between all present. The downside is that it's socially fragile -- one person having an off night can really screw things up in a way that is not as easy to do with, say, Settlers of Catan.

    And the interaction between rules and fiction also keeps me coming back. Specifically the different forms the rules can take regarding the fiction. Of course all fiction has rules (implicit or explicit) but RPGs make many of them explicit.

    Some of the more interesting ones to me have mechanics that let you directly influence the story as a player, rather than through the medium of your character. This drives a lot of people crazy, but it also allows you to tell stories where a character's narrative weight has nothing to do with their abilities -- i.e. in a "realistic" Buffy TVS game, Buffy could do almost anything and everything better than her friends. But in a story-centric game, her friends can have their own spotlight scenes and appropriate challenges and Buffy is mechanically hampered from interfering and scene-stealing.

    One counter-argument is that the Buffy player shouldn't do this because it's rude and in a healthy/functional group this shouldn't be necessary -- and to an extent I agree -- but if there's one thing that D&D has taught me, it's that if you mechanically reward the characters for doing X, then by Jove, they will do X. (In D&D's case, kill monsters.)

    Anyway, someday I'll vacation in Washington and run a game or three of new-style games for you and sundry. Someday.


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).