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The Last Dark Art

One: If You Choose Not To Decide, or The Choices of Gamemaster Samwise

by Dan Layman-Kennedy
Sep 26,2002


The Last Dark Art: Exploring the Gaming Aesthetic

One: If You Choose Not To Decide, or The Choices of Gamemaster Samwise

by Dan Layman-Kennedy

Welcome to the first installment of the Last Dark Art. Every month in this space, I'll be discussing the rather heady and ambitious subject of Gaming as Art Form - the ways roleplayers can develop a sense of craft in gaming with as much care and seriousness as a novelist or actor devotes to the shaping of their art. Along the way, I'll be talking about the ways in which gaming relates to its sister narrative forms - prose fiction, drama, oral storytelling, and visual media - and the tools that can be borrowed from them in the creation of a gaming craft.

If all that seems unbearably pretentious - a curse of no small potency among roleplayers - stick with me a bit anyway. It's my contention that a form of entertainment that flexes the imagination as much as adventure gaming can only be more rewarding the less we're embarassed by it. It often seems as if gamers have bought so deeply that their hobby is no more than that - a hobby, a time-waster, a geeky, escapist pastime for socially inept misfits - that we don't think it deserves the care and attention of an art form. It's all too easy to believe that the creative effort put into roleplaying is somehow less "important" than the energy put into the making of books and films - that if gaming has artistic merit, it's as a kind of imaginative excercise to prepare you to create works of "real" worth. But I think that roleplaying must be measured on its own terms, as an art whose value is in its own creation, whose pursuit has its own artistic validity. Gaming has as much potential to engage, to move, to explore profound ideas as any other kind of narrative, and the more so the more "seriously" we take it. This column will bean attempt to explore, in some part, this vast and largely uncharted territory.

This time around, I want to talk about choices.

"Choice" is a sort of loaded word among roleplayers. A game without real choices is on its way to not being a game at all, but a novel with lip service paid to audience participation. It's a rare player indeed who enjoys being railroaded by the gamemaster into a story in which he has no ability to make real decisions. The referee who commits this most grievous of gaming sins may or may not be on a power trip, but has almost certainly forgotten something essential to roleplaying: that it is interactive. Uniquely among narrative media, gaming tells stories where the creators and the audience are one and the same. A player who doesn't have a voice in the direction the story takes is only getting, at best, half the experience of what a good game is all about. While the story the GM tells may be a damn good one in some ways, it is, as Master Will says, from the purpose of playing - and "'tis a fine barn, English, but sure it is no pool."

Choices are in some ways at the heart of what gaming is about, and central to the language of roleplaying: What do you do? Left door or right door? Attack or retreat? Mace or broadsword? Chaotic or lawful? And on an even more basic level, among the group itself: Fantasy or espionage? Hard-science or space-opera? Serious or lighthearted?

This touches on another take on the idea of choices, one which uses the word in a very similar sense to the way actors and other theatre folk do. These are design choices, like the decisions players make about their characters, from the most basic (class and race, or template, or archetype, or whatever the system employs) to the most specific - likes and dislikes, motivations, and other details of personality. It's very tempting for players to create characters who are most clearly defined by their capabilities, their strengths. And there's nothing wrong with this, really, except that roleplayers are naturally inclined to take advantage of whatever system they're using. Min-maxing isn't a practice limited to the munchkin set; almost everyone who's ever sat down with a character sheet and a rulebook has done this to one extent or other: What disadvantage will give me the most points for the least inconvenience? What character class has the most strengths, the least weaknesses? Sure, we all believe in game balance, but it's much better if it's balanced in your favor, right?

An actor preparing a role, if he's good, asks a rather different question about any potential decision he makes: What choice is the most interesting? And this is the thing that takes precedence over all other considerations. The "easy" choice is almost always discarded; this is why most actors playing Hamlet will decide that he really is insane rather than (or in addition to) just pretending to be. Making Hamlet's madness authentic is the more interesting choice - it's more complicated, it's more challenging, and it brings depth to those scenes where his "antic disposition" comes into play.

Roleplaying isn't acting, exactly, but players and GMs alike might benefit from adopting the actor's philosophy about making choices. A game takes on entirely new levels when the participants consciously make choices because they're interesting rather than easy. This is a big part of playing in-character and making it believable, and it gives everyone involved a sense of responsibility towards the story they're creating. To be a player - a co-creator - is to have a stake in telling the most engaging story that can be told with the tools at hand. To really appeal to our sense of the dramatic, this is rarely compatible with characters whose lives are easy.

As I said, this is an idea GMs can take to heart as well. I'm frequently astounded when gamers, who have at least as broad a palette for their imaginations as creators in any other medium, take the easy and obvious route in matters of world-building and scenario design. No less a luminary than Kenneth Hite has remarked at least once that any rulebook worth its salt will tell you to change what you like, but far too few actually do encourage diversion from the "cannon" vision. Luminous, noble elves, rogues with hearts of gold, and brooding, black-clad vampires are all well and good, but they've been done already. Before introducing such an element into the game world, it can be useful to ask: Is this the most interesting choice for the story I want to tell? The answer to this may be "yes" after all, but the world-builder who asks it has at least the opportunity to know that for sure - and why. Taking such things for granted can signal the death of the players' engagement, and can undermine creating the best kind of narrative possible within the framework of the game.

One more bit of advice from acting class can be of use to gamers when making choices, and it's one of the golden rules of characterization: the more specific your choices, the better. This is part of the Prime Directive of improvisation, which states that you should have more material prepared than you actually need. Specific choices are part of what keep your barbarian warrior from being Ug the Generic Fighter and your fantasy realm from seeming like it was assembled from a kit. It's a bit more extra homework, but the payoff is substantial. So answer all those goofy method-actory questions: Who were your parents? What did you want to be when you grew up? What's your favorite color? Song? Kind of whiskey? Understand that nine-tenths of this may never come into play at all. But the players making the choices know, and that attention to detail will inform the game even if it's not on a conscious level. And this helps to build the shared reality that's one of the keys to satisfying gaming. The more specific choices are made, the more the secondary, fictional world will make sense.

Again, this works on a world-building scale too. A feudal kingdom takes on new dimensions if the GM knows what the names of the ten previous monarchs were, what creatures are on the royal seal, and who the wandering tribe were who founded it five thousand years ago; this is information the players may never find out, but the GM will believe in his creation more strongly for it, and the solidity of its reality will come across at the gaming table. This needn't mean that everything must follow the same kind of logic as the real world (which is, after all, frequently arbitrary and dull). Dramatic logic has its own kind of shape and momentum, and is probably more interesting; as long as the choices made follow an internal logic, and correspond to the ideas that all the players agree on about their shared world.

The idea of a shared reality leads, finally, to an aspect of choice that is often overlooked in the roleplaying world. I began this discussion by stating that a game isn't really a game if the players aren't given genuine options, because a player is a co-creator of the story that's being collectively told. This is, in fact, one of the things that marks roleplaying's departure from prose fiction and film and theatre, and any other medium that uses a scripted narrative. I suggest taking this freedom of choice on the players' part one step further than simply the actions of their particular characters. It's easy to assume that a game is the GM's show and that everyone else is simply along for the ride, but this needn't always be the case. Why not allow the players themselves to have a hand in the direction the story takes - to have input in the course of the story beyond what their characters can directly affect?

Obviously, this is something that has to be handled delicately, and won't work for every game or every group. And, naturally, there would have to be consensus about what kinds of choices the players can make and to what extent the GM can override. (Some systems even have devices for this built into the rules - and these things are usually easy enough to patch into other systems.) There are a lot of forms this can take, from assigning points or tokens that can be traded in for plot twists to more informal "intermissions" where the GM and players discuss what's up ahead and where the story's going. This is where it helps to have had serious discussions about shared vision before the game starts, which involves a whole list of choices many gamers don't think to make: What does this world smell like? What are its textures, its colors? If life here could be summed up in a single phrase, what would that be? What events will be recurring ideas, and what kinds of things will never happen at all?

This kind of game takes more effort in the initial stages, more care and discussion beforehand; it also requires a lot of trust between the participants to not screw it all up for each other. But, given the right kind of dynamic, there's no real reason gaming can't be more satisfying by becoming even more egalitarian in its process of shared creation. At the very least, it's interesting to reverse the idea, found in most rulebooks in the "What Is Roleplaying?" section, that a game consists of the GM presenting a scenario and the players responding to it. I suggest that it can work just as well to see it as the players presenting a scenario and the GM telling them what happens. To borrow one more parallel from the theatre, the job of a director was once descibed as "watch what goes on onstage and when you see something you don't like, change it." A similar philosophy of gamemastering can allow some genuinely interesting choices to come out of the players, and under the right circumstances result in a rich and wondrous work indeed.

Happy gaming. Choose wisely.

Next time around - themes!

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