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Why Too Much Creativity Can Be A Bad Thing

by Stephen Brown

In which the author rants and raves against those hellish demons which threaten to destroy any roleplaying game: the players.


Roleplaying is an opportunity to be creative in a social setting. For some of us, it's our only one, and for a few, it's a window which they seem to think can accommodate the zeppelin of their entire suppressed imaginative efforts. It's through this creativity that we ordinary mortals can be transformed into... well, other ordinary mortals, but with tights! Or vampires, werewolves, what-have-you. The point is, for most of us, it's our creativity and imagination that drew us to RPGs, and it is these (and our snack-related addictions) that keep us coming back for more. But there's a delicate balance needed to be struck between the creative side and the social one. Too much social interaction, and the imaginative side, the actual gaming, suffers. Too much imagination, too many whistles and bells in the game, and the social side suffers: tensions rise, dynamics collapse and soon everyone hates you for being a smart-arsed git.

Recently, I ran a campaign for pretty much the first time in an adult setting (notice I didn't say mature) and it stank. The last time I'd GMed was in high school: we all saw each other at least five days a week, and when we came together to game, we gamed, baby. With this adult group, we met in the flesh only once a fortnight, and when we gamed, we mostly chattered.

It took at least an hour to settle down and even start to play, and then we were constantly being broken up by references to the week's news or personal events or TV whenever some vague parallel cropped up in the game. It's been something of a recurring problem within my group- too much of a social dimension.

But the real problem in this case was everyone's need to express their creativity. Not just the comparative trickle it takes to steer a few characters through your standard scenario, but a flood of pretentious method-acting that quickly washed away the players' inhibitions, any sense of the story, my sanity and any desire to sit behind the GM screen in the future.

Over-creativity was also looked at in this article from issue 1.

Admittedly, this was originally partly my fault. I'd enjoyed the creation of the scenario too much, and once I got going, I couldn't stop. Characters, NPCs, plots and sub-plots, backgrounds and settings all grew exponentially in detail and magnitude, while I sat there drooling and grinning like an idiot. Tellingly, the characters and initial setting had come from a short story I'd almost got around to writing several years before, so the relationships and plot were, practically, set in stone (D'oh!). The characters were a small clan of war veterans and their families, who'd settled down together after the war, because - and this was the whole point - they actually liked each other.

No sooner had the players crossed the threshold, then they began to mark out the scenario as their own, in the manner of lowly animals everywhere. Tensions and grievances completely unimagined in the two decades the characters had known each other boiled up in fifteen minutes. Secrets were kept, possessions were stolen and plans were deliberately scuttled. Two players were maliciously poisoned by two of the other players. And, inevitably, notes had to be passed. Not the odd smattering you'd expect from an average game, but dozens, coming from all directions at once, half of them dealing with this petty infighting, the other half saying "What did his note just say?"

So my atrophied GM muscles, already struggling under the load, had to try to keep the action going for the few player not involved in the current catfight, while hurriedly scribbling replies to the ones who were. It was a nightmare. Everyone was trying to be clever. Usually not a problem, but they were all trying to be clever as individuals with little or no thought to the adventure, the rest of the party, or me. The players are many, the GM is but one. And when the needs of the Many outweigh the abilities of the One, then everyone gets screwed. And when many of the needs of the Many are frivolous and the One is tearing his hair out in chunks, the wise ones of the Many shut up and behave, lest the One cast a Chaos God in their midst. As happened in this case, but that's another story.

To be scrupulously fair to the swine, I'll admit that it was largely my fault that things turned sour. I stupidly plotted the thing out linearly, without anticipating the healthy dose of chaos that separates RPGs from a frenzied orgy of epileptic chainsaw jugglers (as I said, it had been some time since I'd GMed). I'd laid out this hideously overwrought campaign with almost zero leeway for them to maneuvre. And as I had foolishly expected them to behave more or less as I had planned, I had no backups ready to pull them into line, nothing just over the horizon in case they strayed.

Issue 1 also featured an article on the responsibilities of the players in the making of a good game

But in my defense, not only were the players vying for the Golden Beret award for misplaced artistry, some of them were also just being deliberately contrary. At one point, the ranger of the party decided not to investigate the campfire off in the wilderness, because "it seemed too obvious" that the plot required him to. Charming. Another player thought that the low intelligence rating on his character sheet gave him free reign to constantly act like an idiot, to the point of fouling up the group's plans and destroying their one and only boat.

It's all well and good to try to be innovative with your characters, as long as you stay in character. And you shouldn't have to stick to the story, step for overly-planned step. But the GM has probably put a lot of time into creating a scenario which moves from point A to point B, and suddenly deciding that your character would rather open up a clothing store for Tall 'n' Wide Barbarians at C is a bit of a slap in the face.

There's a covenant between GM and players, to gather together for enjoyment's sake. And work together for it. Parties must have a common goal, and any personal voyages of discovery should take into account the limited resources at hand. And in most cases, particularly this one, the most limited is the GM.

This issue, David Astley also gives tips to GMs

This is not to say that there's no place for idiocy in roleplaying: for some, that's the sole purpose of the exercise. But you have to gauge your fellow gamers and their mood. If everyone's engrossed in a game, it's probably not the time for the pie-fight gambit. And if you do insist on it, you might find the whereabouts of the next gaming session is kept from you. Likewise, for roleplaying to be any fun at all, the GM must provide an atmosphere that's conducive to a little experimentation and exploration beyond the outline of any particular adventure. But the players also have to realise that if they rock up to a town to visit an elderly great-aunt only to find she's mysteriously disappeared, it's not time to wander off fossicking for gold in the nearest dragon-infested hills.

We've all witnessed and participated in this problem behaviour, in some shape or form, and we've all suffered because of it. And it is more than just annoying, it can be the stuff that ruins not just adventures and campaigns, but destroys whole gaming groups. So it is important that gamers never lose sight of the covenant of roleplaying, that implicit contract that exists between GM and players: to work together, for everyone's enjoyment.

For if Hudson Hawk taught us nothing else (and I believe it didn't), it spelt out in letters of fire twenty feet high that a person's imagination, when left unchecked to run to its egotistical limits, can really, really suck.


Stephen began roleplaying many years ago, and still hasn't got over his addiction to Warhammer FRP. He is a regular player (but never again a GM) in a group that also contains most of the editorial staff. When not gaming, he reads far too much Sin City and Generation X for his own good.

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