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Close to the Edit

Everything Old Is New Again

by Ross Winn
May 26,2004

 

Everything Old Is New Again

I was shopping for a notebook yesterday. I have an office supply jones something akin to a crack habit. I love office supplies. People have asked me why and I think it is the potential. On those pages I could write volumes of prose the likes of which no one had ever seen. I could create worlds unto themselves and record witty commentary for the ages. Most of the time, though, the notebooks stay empty. The potential is there, but for years I was caught in a quandary. "What kind of new thing can i do?"

For years I couldn't start a new game without a new notebook. My players knew it was my quirk of starting a new game. Each time they saw a new book, the players knew something was up. Something was up, but it wasn't new. I used to lie awake nights. Literally, lie in bed next to my wife (though I can't recall which wife it was exactly), trying to think of something new and different. At one point it drove me to tears.

For a while I tried to come up with ideas that I hadn't run yet. Sometimes they were ideas I had read elsewhere, or seen in other mediums. One day I simply gave up. It wasn't a surrender, but more an epiphany. There weren't any new ideas, and all of the ideas that I thought were new ideas weren't. There are no new ideas, there are no new plots, and once I realized this, my life became much simpler. Better still, my games became better.

So there are no new ideas. I mean I know there are people that say that this can't be true, but the prevailing wisdom, and an awful lot of evidence, argues that it is. There is a lot of info on the net that says so. Do a google search on basic plots if you don't want to take my word for it. There are a lot of different theories on this, and most of them conflict, but basically they come down to there are x number of basic plots, and all else is simply a slight variation.

One asserts that there is only one plot, based on conflict. Its proponent Foster-Harris calls it "conflict". Even for me that seems somewhat limiting, but the largest number of plots that I found codified is thirty-seven. Many people think there are only seven plots; the grammar school teachings of man versus man, man versus nature, and so forth. Some think there are a few more. I am partial to the thirty-six plots defended by Polti. Still, the point is the same, none of them are new, and none of them are completely original.

It bothered me for a long time that I couldn't come up with anything original. It doesn't seem to bother other artists, or at least not so much that they wrote long diatribes about it. Painters still try to capture the human form. Sculptors and poets still toil as well. They do not cease. While I don't think that we as GMs should stop toiling either, we need to stop trying to be different for the sake of difference (as do the designers among us).

More importantly, we need to stop limiting ourselves because someone else had a similar idea. A designer I know mentioned that they wanted to do a vampire game, but he said that a vampire game was automatically too similar to 'the' vampire game. Bollocks! There are a lot of new games out that are the same. No one is out there refusing to do a fantasy RPG, or an SF RPG, or a superhero RPG.

When you get right down to it, almost all games are the same. The players are always special. The foes are always villains. The trappings may be somewhat dissimilar, but the result is generally the same.

Now this isn't the same as being tired of certain ideas. At one point in my life I had sworn off fantasy. It was simply that the genre was tiresome to me. I had explored damned near every game that I had seen and I was tired of it.

Of course then a friend of mine named Sam decided he wanted to run a fantasy game set in Harn using GURPS. It was a brilliant game. The group played together for damn near two years and I don't recall a bad session in the lot. I always assumed that he had some cool new ideas. What I never realized, until he told me yesterday, was that the entire cycle was ripped off from Richard III. Of course the minute that he said it, I felt like a complete ass for not realizing it. I have read something like twenty-six of Shakespeare's plays, and liked Richard III quite a bit. Still he threw in some other elements that made it different enough that it was entertaining to all of us, and as importantly I think it seemed fresh and new.

There are lots of genres and games that you can get tired of. Superhero games are like flies, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting one. It is easy to get tired of superheros, and super powers. It is also very easy to oversimplify games to the point of kewl powerz, and beating stuff up. Just in the last few years there has been UNSanctioned, Brave New World, Aberrant, Champions Fifth Edition, A revision of GURPS Supers, Godlike, Silver Age Sentinels, Mutants & Masterminds, and probably a few others that I have missed. So what is the point of all of this? Well, basically the point of this is that while it is easy to take any system mechanics and beat the crap out of people, it is also easy to get tired of doing that pretty quickly. Every game needs some different ideas; not new, but different kinds of ideas and stories that each of the players and their characters can take roles within. Do we really need another weepy dark future game? Do we need another Fantasy game with dark elves? Do we need superheroes? The answer is no. What we need are games with compelling play and entertaining styles, even if they explore material already covered by other games.

So even if there are no new ideas, there are always interesting ways to use the stories that we know, the plots we know, and the characters and players we have to create compelling, fun, entertaining games. Sure, we can beat the crap out of the bad guys whenever we are so inclined, and in many cases really enjoy it. We need to not center our games too much on the killing and smashing, but not get so caught up in the "new" ideas that we forget where we came from.

As GMs we need to dismiss the bondage of coming up with something new, or something different, and instead concentrate using the tools that we already have to make more enjoyable games for ourselves and our players.

In the next installment of this column we will discuss in more detail the 36 basic plot and things we can do to integrate them into our games. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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