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Gameable Fiction?

by David Thomas

In which the author explains that one thing cannot be another


Last July, I was on a panel at Baroquon (a convention in Cambridge, UK) discussing why science fiction RPGs were less popular than fantasy. I made what I thought was the completely uncontroversial observation that "fiction doesn't make good games and vice-versa". There were immediate squeals of protest. People were insisting that at least their long-running campaign would make an outstanding epic novel. Others were certain that they could take any book and make a satisfying adventure out of it.

I've not played in any of their games, so they may have been right. However, I wasn't saying that fiction and gaming shouldn't mix or that good stories and backgrounds can't enrich RPG environments, just that the two are different. Trying to turn one into the other is a mistake.

When I first started playing RPGs, they usually had a thing in the back listing suggested - almost required - reading. Usually, it included inspirational material like Lord of the Rings, the Conan stories and pretty much anything by Michael Moorcock.

The plan was that Dungeon/Game/Star Masters and their players would explore a world in some way inspired by this fiction. Most backgrounds, especially vanilla fantasy (orcs, elves, good and evil) and space opera (cat aliens, dog aliens, big empires, desert/forest/ice worlds), followed their inspirations slavishly.

After a bit, White Dwarf took this further and started running articles about how to recreate the trip through Moria for D&D, and so on. In a piece of epic daftness, someone even described how Liane the Wayfarer (from Jack Vance's Dying Earth) might somehow avoid Chun the Unavoidable. Chun is not a nice man: he kills people and stitches their eyes to his coat, so no one wants to meet him. But Chun, you see, really is unavoidable. That's the point. Such determinism however, while perfectly natural in a story, is inappropriate in a game.

Yet for reasons which escape me, the writers were bent on blurring the line between these two distinct activities; telling stories and playing games.

Basically, novelists, film or TV show producers and comic writers are storytellers. They intend to entertain, even to educate, their audience. Some of their subject matter will be familiar, other parts less so, and the actual plot may be very well trodden indeed. The storytellers can judge their success on whether they get paid (or applauded) or not. That, in fact, is the role of the audience: to consume the product. It's a passive, unidirectional relationship.

It's also a short term, discrete event. Unless the writer's a scamp (or a hack churning out a series - of which more later), the story is complete in itself, the entire building. Whereas a roleplaying scenario isn't even the plans. It's more akin to the developer's design notes, subject to amendment by the architects and engineers.

Gaming is not the passive consumption of someone else's vision. Although it is a game company's aim to sell product, the gaming group (which includes the GM) are separate from that, they are a group of friends entertaining themselves. The group might very well buy materials from manufacturers, but they don't have to. It is quite possible to have a good, engrossing game with no formal rules or scripted scenario at all. The group's members are actively concerned with entertaining each other, rather than just sitting back and waiting to be amused.

Setting their intention aside, the execution of these two media is also distinct.

Fiction is sold as a job lot. You read a book or watch a film. Depending on the storyteller's skill, you can think it's wonderful, average or just plain awful; you have no control over the process or the quality. Gaming, however, can run on several levels, according to the group's taste. The players can run the game as anything from a tactical wargame, to a complete immersion in an alien environment. They can sit around a table, move around, act things out. The interaction is almost complete.

Fiction - at least good fiction - has a selection of well-drawn, interesting characters. They have plausible, consistent motivations, which explain their actions. Good roleplaying characters can also possess these qualities. In a story, the author puts the characters' dimensions in place for the story's sake; if they work correctly, the tale will be the richer. The same goes for the player's selection of traits - they will make the character more fun to run and, hopefully improve the game for the other players. However, the author's characters serve the purposes of the story. The players' characters amuse the group. Ideally, they should be entertaining whether an actual adventure is in the offing or not.

While the PCs in the games I've played in or have run have tended towards the wretched-hive-of-scum-and-villainry end of the social spectrum, it certainly is possible to have a heroic character, and to enjoy playing one. Crucially, Call of Chulhu's automatically doomed PCs aside, there's often an assumption that the GM will not allow player characters to die, which slightly devalues their herosim.

There is no call for characters to survive in a story. Indeed, the death of one or two often serves the plot better than their survival. Try telling that to the player of an ex-wizard reduced, for dramatic reasons, to a pointy hat sticking out of a pool of slime. Some players might very well welcome the death of a comrade as a roleplaying opportunity, but I doubt they would feel the same joy over the demise of their own PC.

One or two well-drawn characters might snuff it in a novel, but most characters survive, and this is particularly true in those continuing series that publishers like so much. These cycles have more in common with RPGs than a single tale does, but they're still different. They also resemble soap operas and continuing science fiction products, such as Star Wars, Star Trek and Babylon 5. The audience is encouraged to identify closely with an ensemble of characters, such as the Enterprise Bridge Crew, or Luke' surprisingly extensive family, safe in the knowledge that nothing awful is going to happen to them. Everyone else is set dressing, and thus more expendable.

Now, unless the players are going to portray the actual characters in the series, they are running someone else in the same universe. The background, being merely the minimum hackwork required to give context to the main characters' actions, isn't sufficiently detailed or consistent to support this departure. This is most evident when the series has an overall story, like Star Wars or Babylon 5. Here, not only are the main characters known in advance, along with what happens, but by definition, everything else is a side show. PCs simply cannot do anything relevant in the Rebellion or the Shadow War. Everyone knows who did everything to whom before the action starts.

Consequently, the writers of both games had to extrapolate whole cultures for the characters to inhabit, while remaining consistent with the published work. It's no surprise that they chose lulls in the main product's action (between Wars and Empire, or before the first series respectively) for their games. The point is that the PCs know both that they are second rate, and that they will remain so. They might be in the same universe as the action, but they will never perform it. Darth Vader's combat statistics are irrelevant as the characters will never best him.

Rather than sidelining the PCs from the action, purpose-built environments, such as Traveller or WotC's Star Drive (for Alternity), just remove the big picture entirely. They allow the characters to do a wide variety of things; from fighting or being pirates on the frontier to breaking the law in planet-wide cities; but nothing which would force the big picture to change. This means that the characters can get up to all kinds of nastiness without ever rippling the fabric of the game world itself. While this provides a playable, mostly consistent game, what it doesn't do is enable the characters' seedy exploits to acquire any epic grandeur.

Although there's a fairly large core group in most continuing series, they aren't that much like the standard adventuring party. PC groups are usually a bit too large and unpleasant for a writer's purposes. They're typically of four to eight determined, adventure-seeking loners, with complementary skills and few emotional attachments or dependants. This is not exactly the kind of thing which spawns great novels.

RPG characters also require an interesting mix of capabilities for the players to choose between, whether these are character classes, occupations, vampire clans or non-human races. All characters have something to bring to the party and nearly all commercially published adventures include features that can only by solved by the right specialist. There are fighters, scouts/thieves/rogues, technicians/magicians/psionicists and combat medics in virtually all games. Their idiosyncrasies are usually tacked on to provide depth, rather than being intrinsic to them. As such, these people might be fun to play, but they're not dramatically interesting. Conversely, fiction can easily support "useless" characters, as long as they provide drama or humour.

Moving from character to rules, there's a creative writing class maxim of "show, don't tell", which is directly contrary to the rules set's need to classify and quantify. It doesn't matter to Tolkien, or to his readers, how Gandalf makes his staff glow. Stating that the Grey Wizard can crank out one continual light and four dancing lights a day isn't just completely irrelevant, it detracts seriously from the quality of the book.

However, this kind of detail is very much evident in fictional treatments of game worlds. Naturally, this matters less if the writer was simply using the background, without the standard character types and in ignorance of the rules mechanics involved. However, authors are either commissioned to write about a specific game world by its publishers, or are fans, so actually want to bring it to life. In doing so, they invariably decide to tell the readers what's what, rather than show it to them.

Hence, in AD&D-derived fiction, such trivia as spell components are itemised and the assorted alignments discussed. The various types of dragons are reviewed, exhaustively. This obsession with detail - and not, I submit, the kind of detail a novelist would bother with - draws attention to the poor characterisation. The large PC party gets sketchy, relying on stereotyped motivations and occasionally describing its members in explicit character class terms. Of course, the problem is much more general than just AD&D-based fiction. I once came across and attempted to read a book based on the RPG Shatterzone, but couldn't get beyond page eleven. It was too dull for words. The same goes for the Traveller-based short fiction that pops up occasionally in magazines and fanzines. It is just too attentive to its game world background to take risks or be entertaining. The need to be loyal to the game detracted from the ability to tell a story.

This intrusion of rules need not be a problem to gamers immersed in a game world. It's not necessarily a pre-determined, strong story line that the players want, but the fun of being someone else, somewhere else, doing exotic things. The rules facilitate this by covering the situations that can't be decided by consensus, or are too critical to rest upon the GM's whim. Important events, like the chance of sneaking past a guard, thus acquire a fixed probability. In a story, they're a matter of the author's fiat.

Usually, the GM has some kind of general plan in mind and the players end up doing something fairly close to it, but that's not the same as authorship. Players get very annoyed by attempts to forced march them through a plot, or limit their freedom of action. They invariably pick solutions other than the one the GM thought obvious. If they ever reach the conclusion it's as much through good humoured improvisation and fudging as anything else. It's a collective thing.

Fiction is where a writer tries to draw a picture inside the reader's head. It's a monologue. This holds true even if it's acted, filmed and backed up with special effects. The characters are directed entirely by the author and never wander off track. They do what they're told, no matter how stupid it might seem, because that is their role in the story. Players go nuts if their actions are circumscribed in this way. Likewise, the enjoyment of fiction is singular. In the case of a film, the audience may be able to watch as a group, but their pleasure is individual.

In a game, the group spark off each other and invariably take the action in directions the GM didn't intend. GMs (hopefully) improvise so that there are things for the players to do after they decline to take part in the pre-planned, plot-advancing event. The GM isn't the author and neither are the players; their characters are independent sentient entities moving through the scenes provided by the GM. This is the case whether the game is table top, live action, rules heavy or "storytelling". Everyone contributes, and everyone is entertained. The game's success rests on both the contribution and enjoyment of all the participants.

Considering all the above, it is clear that games and fiction are different. Both offer the same benefit of escapism and entertainment. However, they do it in different ways. Authors, film makers, the better kind of TV executives, all try to persuade you to let them enchant you. Although the response is your own, the adventure is on their terms. You cannot, despite the Phantom Menace merchandising's slogan, "get into it". You can, however, with the assistance of a few friends, get into an RPG environment and remain there for as long as you want. You can enter on your own terms, act however you want and immerse yourself as deeply as you choose. And no one can tell you how it ends.


David Thomas has written and contributed to many Traveller supplements for the British Isles Traveller Support group, and co-wrote Alien Races 2 for GURPS Traveller. He also works as a journalist.

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