Process 03 – What We Talk About When We Talk About Gamingon August 18, 2011 at 12:02 pm
Carrying on from Tuesday’s post, I thought I’d bite the bullet and elaborate on the connection between RPGs and writing.
First principles, then, as follows. I speak for myself. Your mileage may – and most likely must – vary.
Writing is a character-based pursuit, as far as I’m concerned. Character is the Alpha and the Omega, the start and the end of any, of every story. In character, there is story, there is plot, because each character is different, and each character reacts differently to the same situations. If we accept the saw that there are “only two stories, Jack and the Beanstalk and Cinderella,” then the crucial differences in such tales is in their characters, who is doing what and why. Cinderella with a handful of magic beans is a very different story than Jack’s; Jack going to the ball is a very different story than Cinderella’s, and not just because of the gender inversions. Character drives story, not the other way around.
When I started gaming, the R in RPGs might as well have meant “roll” and not “role.” I started playing young, as I’ve said, and games were Monty Haul activities, and it’s not surprising. When I first started gaming, I was – much like all beginners – obsessed with understanding and achieving “victory conditions” – treasure, experience, leveling; obtaining and holding those things that were the most material and/or tangible in an intangible structure. These were plot-based RPGs of the most basic kind – meet in a tavern, hired by a merchant/wizard/lord, clear the dungeon, where everything but the last was truly secondary.
Sometime during high school the switch flipped. There were two games responsible, the same GM for both of them, my dear friend Evan. The first was an AD&D campaign that he ran for roughly half-dozen of us, including myself. I remember it in bits and pieces. I remember its name, “The Nine Vessels of Magic” (…at least I think there were nine of them. There might’ve been seven. Or five.) Home-brewed campaign, using AD&D, and Evan – like all of us – was clearly influenced by any number of exterior sources for raw material. Very quest-based, as you can tell by its title, but Evan – who was always mature beyond his age – had a story, not just a plot; he had NPCs who were characters in their own right, not cardboard stand-ups. His NPCs had motivation, and they – gasp! – talked as often as they tried to kill us in nefarious and fiendish manner.
(The second game responsible was a Call of Cthulhu campaign set during the early 1900s, prior to the Great War, if I remember correctly. Late Victorian, early Edwardian setting, and you can see the still-hidden Steampunk influence just in that, I’m sure.)
One of my friends who was also in our little gaming group, a fellow by the name of Daniel Harray, was an actor. Even then, he was an actor. Seriously. I cannot emphasize the incredible raw talent that was contained in that adolescent body, and I know beyond doubt that it has only blossomed and flourished since then. Being an actor, he had long-since made the transition from roll to role. He answered Evan’s world. His character had his own motivations, desires, history, demons (not literal).
So Evan gave, and Dan was there, every week, giving back. And we were adolescents of various maturity and knowledge, and I seem to remember that Dan got more than his share of grief for actually being “in-character.” Because it’s kind of an alien, awkward thing, to be in the throes of puberty, sitting in someone’s basement, chowing down on Doritos, and have one of your friends committing to his character while most of the rest of us are trying to work out how to get out of the damn pit trap or whether or not we should launch a frontal assault on the castle or maybe try to sneak inside under the cover of darkness. The rest of us trying to make tactical decisions, and there’s Danny, making his choices based on what his character would do, rather than on what will win the fight/get the treasure/defeat the dragon.
Switch, as I say, thrown. Watching Dan’s interactions with Evan, realizing that what they were doing together was not remotely close to what the rest of us were doing. As if they were playing a different game. More than a game.
Holy shit. While the rest of us were scurrying around and trying to hit our next level, the two of them had been telling a story right in front of us. The bastards.
Needless to say, I wanted in, and I wanted in now.
I’m working on a project at the moment that may or may not ever become known.
Actually, I’m working on several of those.
But the one I’m thinking about at the moment, I’m working with a woman who is, without a doubt, one of the smartest, most creative people I’ve ever met, certainly in the medium in question (yes, I know, I’m being vague, and I apologize – I honestly can’t talk about it yet). We’ve been having a weekly conversation on this project, and each week, we come back to character questions. We talk about theme and arc and direction of the story, but we always, always, always come back to character questions. Who and why. What happened to make Our Hero this way. What dark secret does he hold that may never be known. What does he want and why does he want it and what will he do to achieve it.
I’ve written upwards of 15,000 words in answer to these questions, and we’re still a good three months or so away from actually writing the actual project, and I couldn’t be happier. Because every single one of the questions she asks me hones the focus, directs the story, because every single question comes back to who are these people, and why are they doing what they are doing, and why the hell would we even care.
In gaming terms, I am what is called a “plumber.” I’m far more content to roll up my character and then spend – quite literally – hours playing their interactions and conversations. I’m playing in an irregular campaign now with my my bride, and our friends Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir. So irregular that if we get to twice a year, that’s become remarkable. Nunzio is running, and it is not an uncommon occurrence for us to go a night of play without ever using the dice. This can – and has – devolved into dangerous naval gazing, or, as another friend of mine, Alex, once said, “I’m covered in shit! How’d I end up in this toilet?”
It was funny at the time. Context is everything.
(I just realized that I have fallen into the great gamer cliche of telling you about my games. Nothing is more boring for the audience and more rewarding for the player than telling others about the great things they did. I apologize, but I’m still not going to stop. You can always click away, after all.)
So, what does this have to do with writing, if it isn’t obvious already?
Good gaming – and I admit that “good” in this context is entirely subjective, and based solely on my own opinions; better, perhaps, to say “rewarding” – requires an understanding of character and a commitment to the same (thank you, Dan). The most rewarding games for me are the ones where the story is moved forward via collective effort, shepherded by a GM who can hold the reins loose in his or her hand; where character choices, actions, decisions effect and alter the world, in manner both great and small. Where characters struggle, grow, face setback, rise to victory. Where the player and the storyteller are working in concert to tell the tale, and where it is acknowledged that the tale being told is about the characters.
There’s a reason why role-play is such an effective teaching tool, why it’s used in therapy. The opportunity to try new things, to experiment and explore, both with character and story, is priceless. To do so as a recreation makes it precious. Gaming provides a means to test new ideas, to try new scenes, to learn what works and what doesn’t (“How’d I end up in this toilet?”). As a writer, it provides opportunities for collaboration. The immediacy of the gaming table silences – or at least mutes somewhat – self-criticism, which for many writers can be paralytic. It provides a safe forum in which to fail, as well as to succeed.
Writing is a forward-moving craft, seeking uncharted territory. As a writer, any opportunity to hone that craft is one I must seize; a writer who believes they have nothing left to learn is, in my opinion, a writer on the verge of downfall. Gaming provides that.
Doesn’t hurt that it’s a hell of a lot of fun, either.