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The Last Dark Art

Eight: Original Spins: Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed...

by Dan Layman-Kennedy
Jun 24,2003


The Last Dark Art: Exploring the Gaming Aesthetic

Eight: Original Spins: Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed...

by Dan Layman-Kennedy

"Nothing has been said that has not been said before."
- variously ascribed

One of the starting contentions of this column was the idea that RPGs have at least as much potential for creative expression as any other artistic medium. And I'll stand by this; unrestrained by the need for certain kinds of structure and cohesion (such as is necessary to make a book or a film work as such), games are free to pursue avenues of story and "subcreation" that aren't as available to other narrative forms, while keeping much of the appeal of a novel in exploring both drama and setting. And as improvisations, RPGs have a constant stream of creative input from participants, allowing new facets to open up spontaneously at any time in a way that other media have no parallel for.

But "creativity" is a bit of a loaded word, if only because it's so terribly subjective. What feels wonderfully fresh and original to one person has every possibility of coming across as tired and cliched to another. There's no avoiding this, especially among the members of a community so famously unable to agree on anything (and willing to start flamewars over disagreements in taste at the drop of a hat), but a couple of things to keep in mind concerning creativity and RPGs might be useful in finding what resonates as innovative for a particular group.

First, though, something to note: Games do not generally have the luxury of gradually unfolding a dazzlingly new setting for the players the same way a book does for the reader. A person new to Dune or The Name of the Rose can take some time acclimating to the Imperium or monastic life in 14th-century Italy, and if he feels lost for a while, he can shrug it off and assume he'll catch up eventually. This doesn't work so well in games, where the players are usually going to have to know what's going on right off. This is one reason so many games deal in cliched tropes, because it's a kind of literary shorthand useful in getting to know a world in a couple of broad strokes. A background in Tolkien and Lewis is going to make it much, much easier to step into a Forgotten Realms D&D game than a world modeled on, say, Imajica or Perdido Street Station. Note that I'm not saying this is a bad thing; indeed, gamers have found a lot of ways of making "literary shorthand" work in their favor when describing new things to each other ("Unknown Armies? Yeah, it's like Foucault's Pendulum meets Tim Powers meets The Invisibles!"), which can come in pretty handy when drawing a bead on a common frame of reference. But it's also the reason why spending time in a lot of fantasy worlds summons a feeling of having been there before fairly quickly, and why certain types of characters come up over and over again even in the hands of very good players.

With this in mind, It would seem like the genuinely original ideas would be easy to spot among the dross, but the line isn't really as clear-cut as that. And this leads nicely into the next point, which may serve to illuminate why roleplayers have such a difficult time agreeing on what's truly innovative. The truth is that the big ideas have already been done a thousand times -- but novelty isn't really what creativity is about, exactly. Creativity is much more about being able to ring interesting changes on existing ideas.

In Douglas Hoffstadter's essay "Variations on a Theme as the Crux of Creativity" (collected in his book Metamagical Themas), the model he uses is "twiddling knobs" -- altering the quality of each variable in an idea until the whole becomes something different. (He goes on to say that often twiddling knobs will cause new knobs to appear or old ones to vanish, thus ensuring an ever-fluctuating number of variables to manipulate. At this point Hoffstadter's math becomes far too esoteric for me, but you get the idea.) It's a compelling and accessible metaphor, and one that's terribly useful to creators manipulating setting or genre or the broad strokes of a character concept. Most creative people do this sort of thing instinctively, of course, but it might be helpful to illustrate with an example or two. We'll start with a character concept and see what can be done to innovate it -- first by identifying where the knobs are, and then by seeing in what directions they can be twiddled. Since it's going to be helpful to start with a certain amount of flexibility, we'll go with Vampire, as it gives us both a number of customization options and some "cliches" in terms of broadly-drawn splats.

Let's suppose we're considering a Ventrue character. The Ventrue are so much an embodiment of the spirit of the Vampire game that an image probably springs immediately to mind -- a well-dressed gentleman in the neo-Gothic Dracula mode, a mover and shaker in the Camarilla, adept at clan politics but tradition-bound, haughty and genteel. With that description, we've got a bead on what the "knobs" are that we can start to manipulate; the challenge, of course, is to find enough to alter to make our vampire more interesting than the cliche while retaining a certain basic Ventrue-ness.

From a mechanical standpoint, the system is flexible enough -- there's nothing that's forcing us to choose Social attributes as primaries, or even stick with the Clan Disciplines (though we'd have to make a compelling case to our Storyteller to take, say, Protean or Vicissitude -- not that either of those don't suggest a very interesting variant on the template, not to mention an intriguing character history). And of course, it's easy enough to twiddle the knob on "Camarilla" in obvious ways; Sabbat and Anarch Ventrue are far from unheard-of. So on to less tangible things -- personality, for instance. The "default" concept of a Ventrue is cool and arrogant, but recall that this is a clan whose roots are in the warrior-princes of Medieval Europe; an impetuous, fiery, short-tempered Ventrue is entirely in line with the background. Similarly, the suave political manipulator isn't the only course to take, or the hidebound traditionalist; remembering that the Ventrue like to Embrace successful corporate executives, it's not a stretch to read this as an exuberant freethinking visionary with little time for social games and maneuvering.

And so on; you get the idea. Again, so many creative folks do this without even thinking about it that it's almost silly to map it out like this -- except that it can be very useful to examine how the process works and so know how to apply it deliberately when you get stuck. As another example, note how easy it is to use the same method with conventions of genre and setting instead of character. We all know what fantasy worlds are like: pre-industrial, feudal, modeled on a wistful version of medieval Europe, peopled with creatures out of legend and probably a handful of non-human races. See what happens when you adjust the knob on any of those qualities, either alone or together -- what ideas does a postindustrial fantasy world give you, or a democratic one, or one inspired by non-Western cultures? What variations can you get changing all of them at once, and what new knobs do those possibilities suggest, ripe for twiddling?

It's easy to become jaded and frustrated with genres simply because the cynical eye will look on anything and say "But it's been done." The truth, good or ill, is that everything's been done, but that shouldn't discourage creators from trying out variations on established themes. The creative process isn't a flash of something out of the dark that puts an entirely new thing in the world; it's much more a fiddling with the elements of things that already exist, tweaking what isn't satisfactory, combining and recombining things until the balance seems right. If the idea of twiddling knobs doesn't appeal, try on this metaphor instead, fitting for this season of weddings: creativity is a marriage, a coming-together of extant ideas that becomes something more than the sum of its parts. Some unions will, naturally, be more harmonious than others, but evenly wildly disparate things have potential to create a surprisingly satisfying whole, producing something rich and strange by way of the process that unites them.

This means that, for one thing, gamers shouldn't hesitate to cannibalize whatever they like for their games and put it through whatever knob-twiddling or alchemical process seems appropriate. It also means they shouldn't hesitate to revisit ideas that obsess them and tease new variations out of those themes. Creativity doesn't always work better as broad than deep; indeed, narrowing focus can bring out some of the best in a creative imagination. (To illustrate this, an art class given an assignment of "Draw whatever you want" is likely to get frustrated as much as inspired -- lots of people are just uncomfortable given complete free reign. But "Draw a horse" is going to produce many, many different takes on that idea, as each student filters that concept through their own sensibilities.) Obsessions are one of the best resources creators have -- they provide a necessary connection to the work and a reason to stay involved in it. Brancusi's artistic career was focused on a small handful of themes to which he returned over and over again -- flight, torsos, heads -- and which he found dozens of different ways to explore. So think twice about discouraging that player who always wants to play mages, or scoundrels, or brooding lone-wolf Masterless Men; odds are it's an idea he's intrigued enough by that he can keep wringing fresh juice out of it for a long time to come.

It's easy to talk about creativity as if it's something people either have or don't, but I don't buy that. The creative process is a skill like any other that can be learned and developed, and one which benefits from regular flexing. But to learn it, you have to do it -- roll up your sleeves and start twiddling knobs, or, if you like, bringing together different (and maybe disparate) ideas in whatever unholy union seems most interesting. Sooner or later, you'll be as surprised as anyone else is at the offspring they produce.


Exit, pursued by a bear. - Shakespeare, The Winter's Tale

Dan blogs eloquent at Otter Ponderings: http://maestro23.blogspot.com

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