I love telling stories. I love doing a lot of different things, but stories are as good of a place as any to start.
The thing about stories, though, is that they can be somewhat limiting. Because stories, by definition, have certain necessary characteristics. Things like “beginnings” and “ends” and “plots.” Don’t get me wrong, though – those things are great. A good, linear story, told well, can be a magical thing. Write it down on a piece of paper and you can have a great novel. Shoot it on film and you can make a great movie.
What I’ve always been obsessed with more than stories, though, is interaction. The only way an audience can interact with an immutable story set to page or film is to maybe talk about it afterward with their friends. They can’t change the story, just maybe change their perception of it.
So I think that’s one reason I never pursued writing or film making as a creative outlet. I wanted to create something an audience could directly interact with. “Games” would be the best word for that, I guess.
The most rudimentary example of this interaction is probably a “Choose Your Own Adventure” story I wrote a long time ago. That was a lot of fun. It’s essentially a set of linear interconnected stories and the reader is given the choice of which one to read. Very basic interaction. It’s still out in the internet somewhere, and, despite its hackneyed theme and silly pictures, I’m still proud of it.
Let’s talk about Dungeons & Dragons, though, or, more generally, tabletop RPGs. Tabletop RPGs are most definitely my favorite means of telling fully interactive stories. You are a storyteller in direct contact with your audience, and as they react to the story, you can react to their reactions to create the best, most interactive experience possible. It’s hard work and it takes of skill, though. At best, I’m probably an adequate game master, but it’s still loads of fun to try.
The thing is, though, your maximum audience for a tabletop RPG is however many people you can fit around a table, and I’ve always been interested getting my creations into as many people’s heads as possible. So some branching out was required, and the first stop – many, many years ago – was video games. Obviously an electronic RPG is going to have marked differences from a Tabletop RPG, but in the best cases, something akin to Planescape: Torment, you can tell a fantastic story and at the same time have more interaction than any normal person can even fully explore.
Not that I had any aspirations to create the next Torment all by my lonesome (I’ll leave that in inExile’s very capable hands), but I had a story to tell and a first-person turn-based dungeon crawling interface I wanted to implement, so I started programming a Flash game. It didn’t work out, of course, mainly due to a limitation of programming experience, but it was fun, and it, in one way or another, led me into the pursuit of designing board games.
Board games are tricky beasts, though. On the one hand, you’re returning to the table, where interactive storytelling is at it’s best, but you’re doing so in an incredibly limited way. With some paper, pencils and maybe some dice, a group of players can do whatever the game master dreams up. When you’re instead interacting with a box full of specific components, your range of possible experiences is much more narrow. Most of the time, you’re not really even telling stories outside of something like, “Jim made a really good play on the 4th turn, got a bunch of points and ended up winning the game.”
I think Forge War still contains stories, but they’re in possibly the most rudimentary form possible – a collection of numbers and symbols on a quest card. It’s enough, though, to spark the imagination in some players’ minds, and that’s good enough for a first outing in my opinion.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to return to the tabletop RPG, though. How to give players a box of components that will allow them to immerse themselves into characters and explore a world full of choices and possibilities. There will be limitations, sure, but the job is to transcend those limitations and arrive at an experience worth having.
So where do we start? To me, the fundamental question is, “How can a box of stuff replace a game master?” You could always make a game that required a game master, but, come on, let’s face it – being a game master is a thankless job, and good ones are very hard to come by. This is actually the one fundamental advantage of a board game over a tabletop game. No one has to be the game master and everyone gets to have fun. Everything you need is right there in that box, and you just have to open it up and enjoy the experience.
So now that I’ve outlined my lofty goal, next week I’ll get into how one might go about turning a living, breathing game master into, say, a deck of cards (or, rather, several decks) while still making the experience varied, immensely enjoyable and spatially compact.